Issue 36 Friendship Winter 2009/10
Revolution in Mind
I’m holding a spoon. Over one eye. Pirate-like. On either side of me, shouldering into the photo’s frame, two high-school chums. One kid holds a match to light the rolled-up dollar bill that tilts up from the other kid’s mouth. Eyes narrowed in a sinister cast, the smoker clenches the bill jauntily, conjuring at once both Snidely Whiplash and Franklin Roosevelt. Despite his manic grin, the blond-haired kid proffers the flame like he would a holy lamp—this former altar boy understands the power of gesture. A lifetime ago: four friends, including the one behind the camera, in the white shirts and ties our school required, give the Man, give capitalism, a collective Fuck You. Hey, we’re smoking this dollar bill and guess what, it’s a joint! Such were the heady days for smart-ass teens in the early 1970s. We read Jerry Rubin’s Do It! and Abbie Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It. We staged happenings in our kitchens before somebody’s mom came home. And we took pictures of ourselves—the documentary impulse perhaps anticipating a photo arriving in the mail three decades later to remind at least one of us of that day, that mood, and those friends.
Unsurprising careers followed from these tame hijinks: a government lawyer, a social worker, an engineer, and me, a writer. Long out of touch with all but one of them, I’m willing to bet no one’s burning money these days. I wonder if they share my own embarrassment—the feeling owes in a general way to any reflection on youth’s idiocies, but also, in this particular case, from the fact that we four spent so much time together. That is to say, those friendships—and they certainly were such—spark not fond recollection but an acute sense of time wasted. My speculation circuits back to the larger question: Is the past always recriminatory? Are people from our past—those we have, let’s be frank, in one way or another, discarded—not chiefly reminders of misalliances and mistakes?
Hardly the rosy stuff of nostalgia, these thoughts nevertheless register strongly. The photo presents an adolescent version of myself that I gladly claim; it’s not the sly disparagement of self-loathing that perplexes the memory. However content I am now with who I was, I confess to being unnerved by the spectacle of who I wanted to be. And that long-ago aspiration implicates my erstwhile comrades. When the picture was snapped, I was sixteen. I had a car (Chevy Impala, cream-colored bucket seats, Sierra Tan body), a girlfriend, and I longed to be unconventional. Vague ideas about Yippies, Dada, and Beats animated the desire and cued my dress and behavior. Revolution. For the hell of it. No direction home. R. Mutt! Yeah, yeah, and yeah. All four of us imbibed from the same hodge-podge of slogans and attitudes. We believed we were just about to burst out of… whatever we imagined held us.
To be sure, we were young. Typically so. But what strikes me most forcibly as I revisit that time is that I really didn’t want to burst. Didn’t want to revolt. Not that day or ever since. Deep down, my friends—engineer, social worker, lawyer—and I were parochial-school lifers. But then, in kitchens, at demonstrations and concerts, each looked to the other to bolster a hope that we were something else, something dangerous and bold. We shared a confederacy of mutual deceit. Sadly, the falsity is all I can see now: A would-be pirate with a spoon over his eye who will resist self-knowledge for years to come. Who doesn’t understand that his white shirt and tie speak more assuredly about his character than his mock desecration.
But who really knows themselves at that age? I don’t begrudge myself the reckless faith of adolescence. As adults, we edit our past, refurbish the most egregious examples of naiveté with knowledge we didn’t actually have. You more or less go happily forward with this version until an old friend, someone you haven’t talked to, wouldn’t talk to, drops you a line. Sends along an archeological find—a photo of boys imagining themselves as men. As childish men, but purposefully so. Then you have to face undoctored facts: You became what you wanted to become. Or you didn’t. Or you didn’t know what you wanted to become in the first place. Or, and here embarrassment fixes its sharpest point, you realize that believing you could become at all was just a pretty lie. That nearly four decades and many spoons later, you remain just who you were that day.
Albert Mobilio is the co-editor of Bookforum and an assistant professor at the New School’s Eugene Lang College. Touch Wood, a book of poems, is due out in spring 2010 from Black Square Press.
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