Keep it Light, Elie

“Look, I understand how ugly all that war unto the death business was when you were growing up, but if you really hope to sell this manuscript to a literary agent, and ultimately to a publisher who will give you an advance, and, hopefully, the legitimacy of having written a book, no matter how modestly it might sell, you need to keep it light, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father.

Right you are, dad, but let’s unwind your slick use of the passive voice here for just a second.  It’s best, when making your point, as every first year law student is explicitly instructed, to gloss over anything that detracts from your argument.  At the same time, look unflinchingly at the other side of the argument, as you also taught me.  “I understand how ugly that war unto the death business was when you were growing up,” is nicely done, I’ll give you that.

“Nice to see how generous you’ve become, now that I’m dead,” observed the skeleton.  

Don’t mention it, dad.  Ugly the “war unto the death”, certainly was, no doubt about that.  It was a grim enough business as we were “growing up”, for sure.  But let’s not insult the reader by pretending that you were not the C.E.O of that grim little enterprise.  My sister objected to my overkill recently when I thoughtlessly characterized the violent nightly scene around the dinner table as Auschwitz.  She was right to object, it was overkill, disgustingly so.  She agreed it was fair to compare it to the muddy No-Man’s-Land between the barbed wire and trenches of World War One.  The sounds of dying horses, the stench of death, blood and the excrement of thousands of filthy men, whiffs of chlorine and mustard gas rolling in the distance, the occasional cackle of machine gun fire.

“Well, that’s fair, I suppose,” said the skeleton.  

The fact that I can be certain, eleven years after your death, that you remember that catch we had fifty years ago, speaks as much as anything to the rareness of that kind of interaction between a father and his children.  

“Look, what do you want me to say?  Am I still on trial?  Did I not take full responsibility for the obstacles I was too foolish to avoid placing in you and your sister’s paths?  I apologized, hours before I took my last breath, did I not?  What more can I do?  Do the goddamned demands never end?  I’m dead, for fuck’s sake.  What is it you want from me now?”  the skeleton’s smile looked more sardonic than sincere, in light of his mood. 

The same thing I always wanted, the same thing you never got, as a kid, even as an adult, except fleetingly, if intoxicatingly, in those moments when Arlene and Russ leaned lovingly toward you to drink in everything you had to say.  

“Aren’t you getting a little tedious with this One Note Samba, Johnny One Note?” asked the skeleton, as weary, in death, of this line of talk as he always had been during his eighty years of life.  

Certainly, look, I can see that.  I’ll lose some of the repetition in the rewrite, but I haven’t fully made the point yet.   You were born in extreme poverty, your chances for a life better than your parents’ miserable lives were almost nil.  You had almost no expectation of leading a life where anyone would actually listen to you.  Then, as a result of an almost unrepeatable series of events, you were plucked out of your misery and sent off to sing bawdy songs with other young men, engaged in a war to defeat, not somebody cynically portrayed as Hitler, but the actual fucking Hitler.  

“Fuck him, one more time, there’s something we can all agree on.   Even Jeb Bush enthusiastically said he’d take his one shot in a time machine to go back and kill the baby Hitler.  Too bad they didn’t follow up and ask if he’d be willing to abort the fucking fetal Hitler, that tap-dance would have been good TV,” said the skeleton.  

Yep, yep. So you’re in the army now, and then, 36 months later, on the G.I. bill, in Syracuse University and on to Columbia, distinguishing yourself at both schools and filling yourself up with new dreams of the future.  Affordable homes were made available for veterans and everyone else in this unprecedented era of widespread prosperity and optimism and so you were able to afford the cozy cottage where you raised your children in middle class comfort.  You were in the right place, with the right talents and a strong work ethic, at the right time.  You and many of an entire cohort, that Greatest Generation.  

“Well, FDR and World War Two were very lucky breaks for me.  The New Deal really was a New Deal, it changed the game, truly.  FDR was a political genius, and he grasped in that crucial moment that unless a democracy gives its people a true safety net, an alternative like Communism, which was very attractive to millions of us here, becomes irresistible.  Of course, then, as now, there was plenty of hate, there was segregation, the long century of state-sanctioned terrorism casually referred to as ‘Jim Crow’, Native Americans were treated like the Nazis treated the Gypsies, so were Japanese and many other Americans.  Homosexuals could be thrown in jail if they tried to be bold by coming out of the closet, women, after their great contributions to the war effort, and proving they could do all these jobs as well as men, were shoved back into the kitchen.  There was plenty wrong with post-war, Cold War America, but it’s undeniable that the opportunities I got are not often available to poor people anywhere.  You’re right, the circumstances were historically almost unique,” said the skeleton.

Not to minimize your hard work, your tireless dedication to two difficult jobs.  

“No need to put me on a pedestal, you know as well as I do that I commuted to the night job on Long Island as much to get away from the misery in that house as I did to earn whatever pittance they were paying me,” said the skeleton. 

I wouldn’t put you on a pedestal, you know that.  OK, listen, try this on.  A middle class kid has an expectation of being listened to, no?  Wouldn’t you say a child in a private school, whose parents are some kind of acquisitive pricks able to afford the $30,000 tuition to send their precious little seed to an elite elementary school, expects to have his or her opinions listened to seriously?  

“Yes, of course, and any servant insolent enough not to listen attentively to the opinionated musings of the entitled little prick would be enthusiastically caned and then sacked,” said the skeleton.

Right.  Contrast this expectation of having your precocious opinions about the shape and consistently of your little turds given serious consideration with the expectations of youngsters in the School to Prison pipeline.  

“Well, Elie, in fairness to that School to Prison pipeline for poor kids, it does give them an opportunity to be productive members of society.  They become, by their violent crimes and petty misdemeanors, consumers of and  job creators for all the industries associated with privatized prisons.  You know, not only corrections officers but delivery van drivers, cooks, laundry operators, G.E.D. outfits, manufacturers of prison uniforms, a host of prison support jobs in parts of the state that often have almost no jobs.  In fact, if there were more reasonable job opportunities society-wide, say tens, or hundreds, of thousands of decently paid home care attendant jobs instead of the off-the books exploitation of the poor people who presently care for the old and infirm, the demand for prison cells with their three hots and a cot, would be far less.  There’s a nice Catchuh-22uh for you,” said the skeleton.

Couldn’t have put it more succinctly myself, I said, as the skeleton continued to impassively grin.  

“I see where you’re going, of course.  The child born into American poverty has virtually no expectation of anything better, no less of anyone listening to her.  She has a hard life at home, amid the privations and frustrations of poverty, even if her parents are exceptions to the general rule and show her nothing but love and respect, and then she shuffles off to a school that is, in virtually every case, more like a factory for failure than anything resembling a place to set her imagination on fire, as education should, with the many fascinating possibilities the world holds for her.  The world holds jack-shit for her, let’s speak plainly.  There are no jobs for her, outside of menial ones, if she can be persistent and obsequious enough to get and keep one of those.   There are no opportunities for someone who is a third, fourth, fifth, tenth generation poor person, except for the outlier who is then held up as damning proof that any of them could have been born a genius, if only they had the guts and persistence to pursue their American Dream.  These genetic losers can get fired up at some political rally and go home and get drunk.  If they are lucky they won’t wind up beating the shit out of the kids they had when they were fourteen and fifteen years old. Ten in every million will wind up with any chance to escape more than a step or two from poverty.   Makes me glad to be done with the whole business, when I think about it,” said the skeleton.


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