'Cheers' by Emmanuela
Cheers, Emmanuela Copal de León, 1999.

 

American Anaesthetics
by Jonathan Holden


Ever since my graduation from Morristown High School, I've tried to live as though those three years, like a term in the state pen, never happened. But when you're raising kids, you discover, sooner or later, that this kind of denial is impossible. Our kids make us relive all the phases of our lives when we were their age. It's one of their jobs.

If we're lucky, most of these relivings are joyous. I remember teaching my daughter, Alanna, how to tie her shoe, how to stay up on a two-wheel bike, how to drive a car — each time reliving with an intensely pleasing sense of recognition and completion the experience of learning those things myself. I could re-experience vicariously the profound aesthetic satisfaction of "catching on, " of "getting it." And when as a high school sophomore, Alanna was a state champion swimmer in breaststroke, I was awed at her physical strength, exultant at her victories — more exultant even than she was.

Not all relivings are like that. The reliving of childhood is apt to be joyous, but not the reliving of adolescence. Two years later, Alanna started smoking cigarettes and hanging out with a seedier crowd. I watched her begin to copy her new girlfriends. I didn't like them. With their phony, goodie-good politeness to grownups — a parody of politeness, really — and their mirthless, calculated giggles and layers of make-up, there was something helpless, exploitable about them. They resembled a bunch of silly starlets in blonde wigs on some TV quiz show. They had no taste in boyfriends, in cars, or in clothes. Without knowing it, they were ludicrous. And suddenly all the pathetic lengths to which I'd gone in high school to be attractive to girls returned to me, as raw, as bitterly embarrassing as if I'd graduated yesterday instead of thirty years ago. The memories made me angry because they made me ashamed — not of Alanna and her friends, who didn't know any better — but of myself and the culture in which we are raised. It's all television: soap opera for the girls, football for the boys. It's high school all over again. All one needs to do to understand America is remember high school.

Even when Alanna was a star athlete, before she decided to try to be like everybody else, she was watching soap operas. I watched her watch them. She watched them studiously, as if preparing herself for something. Every afternoon, as if to attend her favorite class, she'd show up on time to study The Young and the Restless. All summer. Of course, it was also summer on the screen. But the grownups on the screen never went outdoors. There were more important things to do.

Somebody was getting a divorce. Some young punk was threatening his bride. There was a beautiful young woman sobbing. The scene changed to another beautiful young couple. They were face to face. They looked enrapt.

"I love you," the blonde whispered. "I love you," said the man, quietly. "I love you," she whispered. They sounded like people at a funeral.

But with a rapt solemnity Alanna was studying them. She was taking mental notes. She was memorizing how to be a woman. The scene was fading, and the theme song — Doom/doom! ... Doom/doom! — had already returned, like an inexorable heartbeat, a kind of hymn confirming the universality of sorrow. And now the violins came in. They swelled. You're not a/lone! We were being encouraged to let our hair down and wail.

No sooner had the violins faded into the lunch-hour commercial than Alanna would be on the phone with her friends. It was her homework. She was practicing her giggle. She was practicing how not to sound too smart or too critical of anything, how to be like everybody else. She was practicing for the real world, the world in all its sorrows which on TV, even to me, looked almost thrilling. But the sorrows of the real world are all too easy.

At exactly the same age as my daughter, I too had begun my self-guided course in how to smoke a cigarette. I took up smoking because I thought it would make me look glamorous. I remember watching — even studying —the way Lawrence Harvey and Simone Signoret smoked in the movie Room at the Top. When Harvey placed two cigarettes in his mouth, lit both, then handed one of them to Simone (slightly moistened), it seemed to me a grandly sophisticated, Old World gesture, a gesture I immediately began to practice with my girlfriend, Georgia.

Huddled together, lost in a small college in the seedy wilds of Ohio, we practiced the "French inhale," and felt immeasurably world-weary, invested with a faded, slightly jaded glamour. Camus and French existentialism were, at the time, all the vogue. In every single photograph, Camus, with his haunted Humphrey Bogart countenance, had a cigarette in his mouth. It was a fixture, it was Camus's signature. With the help of a cigarette, the Popcorn Bowl in Oberlin, Ohio could be like a stage set, some dim cafe on the Left Bank or in Morocco.

In a second-hand store I bought a tattered army surplus jacket. It was way too big for me. It draped limply from my skinny frame like a piece of human clothing on an insect. I didn't care. The insect had returned home after fighting, in its imagination, against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. With a pack of Camels, Georgia and I could pretend that we had lived through all the scenes we'd witnessed in the movies. We'd been through the Occupation, through World War II.

To pretend to be Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca is harmless enough, I guess. It's an attempt to import into a bland suburban life a little seasoning, a little style. But what is style for? Style doesn't exist only for itself. Style is a language. The practice of style — a public gesture — is fundamentally a method of counteracting the threat of loneliness and isolation. Like language, style is how an individual expresses his or her sense of place in a community. Whether you're an adult driving a Corvette, an adolescent lighting a Camel cigarette, or a little boy wearing a Batman costume on Halloween, you're using style deliberately to make a statement. The costume, the mask, may vary; but the statement is always the same: I am not being left out.

By the time you're a junior or senior in high school, the terror of being left out can be almost pathological. As I witnessed my daughter almost beside herself with excitement on a Friday or Saturday night before a party, I cringed inside, remembering things I would just as soon forget. In high school, Saturday night was like an approaching final exam. The exam wasn't in Algebra. Its subject matter was more basic. The test question: Are you being left out? Is there some big party to which everybody else has been invited except you?

I still sometimes on Saturday night catch myself wondering a little worriedly if I shouldn't be out somewhere, doing something. I have friends who, when they feel this way, drive to the nearest mall to go "shopping." They're not looking for any item in particular. They feel better simply to be in the presence of merchandise, aisles and aisles of it, a wilderness of gaily colored trinkets — as if the merchandise itself were crowds of people.

In high school, the test of whether you're being left out or not is sexual. Being desired like a piece of merchandise is a test of your market value in the world. The "store" in which products are publicly evaluated is the high-school football stadium. Poor little Billy Connolly, a fearless 125-pound urchin and a first-string linebacker for Morristown High, could be found like a terrier at the bottom of almost every pileup hanging on to some giant runningback's shoe. He would be helped, limping off the field, several times a game, and five minutes later, taped up, would race back out for more punishment.
He was trying blindly, in the only way he knew, to be desired. Not just by girls. He was trying to be desired by the world.

James Wright's poem, "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," a poem organized like a syllogism, is all about this, but it goes further. It presents high-school football as a ritual reflecting many layers of exploitation.

 

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured nightwatchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Therefore,
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

 

As Wright's poem accurately shows, this exploitation begins in high school where, in their instinctive drive to be desired by the world, people "grow suicidally beautiful."

Are you desirable? Does the world desire you? Same question. In America, Saturday night is when this crude question becomes unavoidable. Anything to stem the anxiety that you might somehow be missing out. What you might be missing out on is never clear. Adolescent and adult loneliness is only part sexual ache. It's deeper. It's archetypal — a need to be where the action is, a need to be a member of the human species.

In suburban New Jersey at night, the lights from the New York metropolitan area, like the light from a distant midway, or perhaps a war, make a low blaze along the skyline. It's as if a great party is in session somewhere just over the horizon, and in 1959, this party was being conducted by the passionate voice of Allen Freed on WINS radio, dedicating songs — From Jeanine and Paula at Mel's Candystore to Dickie and Bobbie and all the guys at Tony's Diner on Amsterdam and 106th Street. Elvis Presley and "Love Me Tender"!

"Tony's Diner." I cursed my luck to have been born with a stupid name like "Jonathan," with thin lips and frizzy "dishwater blond" hair (as a girl named Lois called it) instead of with a name like "Tony," with heavy, sensual lips and thick, black, Latin hair that could be greased in a ducktail like Elvis's. How did you join the party?

In my senior year in high school I found the crowd that I'd been seeking: a kid from Blair Academy, named Reynolds Dodd; a kid from Bayley-Ellard (the local Catholic parochial high school) named Richie Bertleson; and a kid from Chatham High, named Danny Koeck. Unlike the careful, competitive kids in my advanced college-prep classes at Morristown, these guys were interested in nothing except girls, cars, and booze. Dodd had his own car, a Bonneville. He did most of the driving. Sometimes my brother came with us. Sometimes we were joined by Crick Hatch. Crick had flunked out of Deerfield Academy. He had black locks and a face like the Hollywood star Robert Wagner. It was the most beautiful face any of us had ever seen, and whenever Crick was with us, we attracted attention. It was as if we were driving a brand-new white Corvette or a Thunderbird. We felt glamorous. But it wasn't our car. And it wasn't our looks. It was Crick. His presence put us in Hollywood.

On Saturday nights, we drove. There was no self-contained block to cruise as in the movie American Graffiti. There was nothing but the waste of northern New Jersey, a concrete tundra of highways going over or past residential areas, warehouses, factories, airports, business districts, and railroads. Roadhouses lit up like Christmas trees, semi-trailers lit up like Christmas trees, bridges lit up like Christmas trees — Christmas at midsummer in all directions, a bewilderment of moving lights, diesel fumes, and concrete dividers.

We drove. And we drove. And drove. It was as if by simply covering distance you could accomplish something. In a sense, we did. We were using up time. Although we had no destination, we were consuming distance. We were shoppers, consumers. Many older people, I've noticed, eat out of boredom. They eat in order to fill time. It gives them a vague feeling of accomplishment. There's something terribly American about this — to consume food you don't need or especially want simply in order to have something to do.

At seventeen, we were too itchy to sit still and eat. We consumed something else. We consumed the commodity of distance, which is rate multiplied by time. Pure emptiness. So long as we were moving, we could be a part of it, pure products of America going crazy, anonymous. We could be what we had always wanted to be — like anybody.

I'd zip the seal off a pack of Camels, tear back a square opening to reveal them like a nest of cartridges, and whack it against my other hand to force one or two up, slide one out, open my zippo with a flick of the wrist, with a snick of the thumb get flame, and then — the best part — a flourish, flicking the zippo shut: snap. I'd practiced these moves in the mirror like a U.S. Marshall practicing his draw, until I was certain I looked like a veteran. I had my part down pat. To inhale and exhale smoke and stare out the windshield, empty, appraising, at the night. To be simply another guy, something as abstract as an Army private, a unit.

Saturday nights were improvisational. We'd start off driving somewhere — maybe to Chatham to pick up Koeck, or past some girl's house, then we'd have to invent another destination. Usually it was the state line. In New York State, you could buy booze at the age of 18. We'd drive the ugly thirty miles to Staten Island, across the Goethals Bridge and hit the first package store we saw, popping the cans as we peeled out of the parking lot, drinking as hard as we could.

Those Saturday nights cruising New Jersey, sometimes, if we happened to pass a young couple walking hand in hand, we'd thrust our collective puss out the window and yell, "Go ahead, fuck her! I did!" Then Dodd would peel out, and we'd all whoop and congratulate each other. Whenever I'm searching to understand what could be going through the minds of high-school boys, what I remind myself is this: as we shouted "Go ahead, fuck her, I did," I was positive it was the coolest thing I had ever done.

Sometimes, on a two-lane highway, Dodd would speed up to ninety miles an hour and, if there was an oncoming car, he'd deliberately swerve at it, cut back into the right lane at the last split second. I should have been terrified, but I felt nothing. It wouldn't have been cool.

One night we were returning from a New York sortie. It was well after three a.m. Dodd, the driver as usual, was uncommonly silent. Everybody in the car was drunk, nodding off, except for me in the front and my brother in the back. Dodd was perspiring as he squinted forward with a sullen, maniacal concentration. Trees were flashing on either side of us, almost swiping the windows. We were in Jockey Hollow National Monument, on a one-lane blacktop. Dodd started accelerating: eighty, ninety, a flat one hundred miles an hour. I heard a cry from behind me, like the scream of a puppy. My brother, my identical twin brother, Stephen, was curled on the floor, sobbing with terror.

"Shut up!" I snarled down at him. Stephen had the reputation of being a sissy. I would not be compromised by it.

That was the absolute low point in my determination not to be left out — unforgivable. It was the full measure of what I didn't know. The organic numbness of adolescence is the numbness of a lynch mob. You don't know anything. You don't feel anything. You don't fear anything. You've been anaesthetized. But it was who we were then.

Most middle-class Americans never entirely leave their adolescence. Why? It may be because, in America, we can afford it. Adolescence is a luxury. And it's good for business. Business not only supports adolescence, it fosters it. To a significant extent, business lives off it. American television, with its diet of anaesthetics — soap operas and quiz shows on weekdays for the girls, football and basketball on weekends for the boys — is our own adolescence recycled and sold back to us, an eternal present tense of consuming everything in sight and heaving the remains out the car window and leaving it for junk. Our own adolescence has been so shrewdly and deliberately marketed on such a stupendous scale that it has become our national ideology. Since the end of World War II, America has come to resemble one great, crass, hard-drinking, pill-popping, football-crazy public high school, cars peeling out of the parking lot, cheerleaders flouncing and shouting, selling us national spirit, while the somber coaches in the Pentagon, recruiting for the coming season, roll artillery up Main Street every Fourth of July.

Just as military installations have become so ubiquitous in the American landscape that we no longer notice them, the anaesthetic inner landscape of America permeates so thoroughly the outer landscape that we are no longer conscious of it: we take it for granted. The two landscapes are intimately related: the places where people go for fast, illicit, one-way, disposable pleasures are always junked. The following poem recalls a beach on Lake Erie where, as college students, we used to have "beach parties." The poem is set in 1962. Lake Erie has since been cleaned up, but thirty years ago, it was so polluted by industrial waste that it had been pronounced "dead."

 

Junk

Dim, heavy Ginny, whose wet mouth
which smelled like a washcloth
I joked about next morning
driving south as if
I were leaving this behind-
these words are more
to remind me than you:
that dusk when I drove us
to Lake Erie did happen.
Those bald spots linking
suggestions of a path
slithering downhill to the beach
were there, even though
that whole landscape had been
junked-scorched rocks
around abandoned campfire sites,
dead fish, tires flunked,
stranded on the beach,
the sand limp as a cold pancake.
Each can of Black Label I pried out
puckered, spit.

I now admit

that when I breathed
I love you in your ear,
I didn't mean it.
No wonder that by midnight
you wouldn't speak to me
but huddled there, teeth rattling,
your comb snagging, snapping
as you ripped sand from your hair
while I busied myself pissing
in the bushes, breaking
one-way bottles to keep warm.

Ginny,

whose face I knew I'd never see again
now I think we can afford no more
to leave for junk our summer jobs
or any night like that
than to deny these
seedy little deaths we're party to.
On back roads, wherever
ruts turn off into the trees,
we must always come
upon this sudden evidence
of civilization,
these small, charred cities,
glass glinting in the rubble,
the places we have been.

 

 

Text © 1994, 1999 by Jonathan Holden
"American Anaesthetics" first appeared in Many Mountains Moving, Volume 1, Number 1 (December, 1994). The work appears here by permission of the author.


Original Graphic Image, "Cheers" © 1999 by Emmanuela Copal de León


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