Johnny America


In Re­cent News…


Part 1

In De­cem­ber of 2001 I went home to Mil­wau­kee for the hol­i­days. At the time I was six months out of a grad­u­ate pro­gram in Cre­ative writ­ing, liv­ing in Los An­ge­les, hope­less­ly sin­gle, and flat broke. My plan in go­ing to Los An­ge­les in the first place — to make my for­tune writ­ing for TV or the movies (nei­ther of which I watched with any great at­ten­tion)  — hadn’t been work­ing out and so I land­ed in Mil­wau­kee that win­ter with a new plan in mind. Some weeks ear­li­er, while I was stand­ing in line wait­ing to have one of the movie scripts I had writ­ten pho­to­copied in or­der that I might mail it out to agents and man­agers who would sure­ly find it lewd, off-putting, and ut­ter­ly un-saleable, I start­ed read­ing one of those how to get rich in five (or ten, or twen­ty — it re­al­ly doesn’t mat­ter) easy steps books that they sell at Kinko’s and oth­er places fre­quent­ed by un­em­ployed peo­ple. For the most part, the book was about hav­ing a pos­i­tive, can-do at­ti­tude — some­thing that’s not easy when you’re twen­ty-five years old, broke, sin­gle and liv­ing in Los An­ge­les — and how if your at­ti­tude was pos­i­tive and can-do enough it would be es­sen­tial­ly im­pos­si­ble for you to fail (and if you were fail­ing, by con­trast, this fail­ure should be tak­en as ev­i­dence that re­gard­less of what you might have thought your at­ti­tude was in fact not pos­i­tive or can-do enough). But there was one lit­tle pearl of wis­dom lost amongst all that nam­by-pam­by at­ti­tude talk that caught my at­ten­tion: one should al­ways think about mak­ing his for­tune — ad­vised the au­thor — one dol­lar at a time. And it was with that ad­vice in mind that I had de­vised my new plan: to keep ask­ing peo­ple for a dol­lar un­til, one dol­lar at a time, I had at last amassed the kind of for­tune that would al­low me to live the kind of life I thought I want­ed, and de­served, to be living.

Dur­ing ten days in Mil­wau­kee, De­cem­ber and on in­to Jan­u­ary and the year 2002 (all of us putting the bad news of 2001 be­hind us), I car­ried out my new plan with great suc­cess. My fa­ther gave me a dol­lar, my moth­er gave me a dol­lar, my sis­ter — who was still in col­lege and re­al­ly had no mon­ey of her own to speak of — gave me a dol­lar that some­body else sure­ly must have giv­en her in the first place, my grand­moth­er gave me ten (I’d on­ly asked for one but that’s my grand­ma for you), my Aunt Sue gave me a dol­lar and even her com­mon-law hus­band Jeff gave me a dol­lar; my an­cient Aunt Char­lotte gave me a dol­lar and, af­ter I had asked him four or five times, my no­to­ri­ous­ly flinty Un­cle Sid­ney threw his hands in the air and then gave me a dol­lar, as well; even my par­ents’ friends Doug and Car­ol from down the block hand­ed over a dol­lar apiece when they stopped by unan­nounced one evening for a vis­it. All in all I left Mil­wau­kee with some­thing like twen­ty-five dol­lars — not bad — and per­haps I would have kept go­ing, all the way un­til I had the mil­lion or two or three or five mil­lion dol­lars I thought I need­ed to live the kind of life I want­ed, and de­served, to live (one imag­ines that, like a hori­zon in re­ced­ing, the num­ber of dol­lar you think you need in or­der to live the way you think you de­serve to live grows as you ap­proach it), ex­cept that in the end shame, or fool­ish pride, got the best of me. I sat next to a nice la­dy on the air­plane back to LA — her daugh­ter was work­ing on an MFA in pho­tog­ra­phy at UCLA and her son, a col­lege stu­dent, was study­ing abroad in Barcelona, Spain — and I kept telling my­self that be­fore we sep­a­rat­ed af­ter land­ing I would ask her if she would mind giv­ing me just one dol­lar. But the wheels hit the ground — af­ter that awk­ward pause, the plane’s nose point­ed up, that al­ways pre­cedes touch­down — and I still hadn’t found it in me to do it.

In spite of my fail­ure to car­ry it out I re­main con­vinced of the es­sen­tial log­ic of that plan. In an es­say en­ti­tled “Stein is Nice” writer Wayne Koesten­baum com­pares Gertrude Stein’s sen­tences to pen­nies: “They’re not worth any­thing,” Koesten­baum ex­plains, but they “add up.” In this day and age a dol­lar is what a pen­ny must have been when Koesten­baum was young — a sort of sheer val­ue, ca­pa­ble of ac­cu­mu­lat­ing but on its own ut­ter­ly with­out val­ue. On the one hand there is no quan­ti­ty of mon­ey that is fun­da­men­tal­ly, qual­i­ta­tive­ly changed by the sub­trac­tion from it of a sin­gle dol­lar, and on the oth­er a sin­gle dol­lar, all on its own, is worth so lit­tle that one might as well not have it at all. The on­ly peo­ple who can rea­son­ably de­ny a re­quest for a dol­lar are peo­ple who lit­er­al­ly do not have a sin­gle dol­lar to their name — peo­ple who do not have one to give away. For every­one else, the na­ture of the dol­lar is to be spare, left­over, a sum of mon­ey one can al­ways do just as well with­out and there­fore can nev­er be jus­ti­fied in withholding.

It’s been a long time since De­cem­ber of 2001 — six years out of my grad­u­ate pro­gram in Cre­ative Writ­ing I am still fair­ly broke, but for­tu­nate­ly nei­ther sin­gle nor liv­ing in Los An­ge­les — but I am think­ing again of that brief and hope­ful mo­ment in my life be­cause of a re­cent news sto­ry out of Sacra­men­to. Ac­cord­ing to the sto­ry, a lo­cal pan­han­dler by the name of Au­drey Jack­son asked a fel­low for a dol­lar while he was wait­ing for the bus. When he re­fused she took out a pis­tol and shot him. Just like that, in the mid­dle of a crowd of peo­ple wait­ing for the bus, shot him right in the gut. The vic­tim, Frank Perez — he has sur­vived, it seems, so we are qual­i­fied to speak of him in the present tense — suf­fers from cere­bral pal­sy and works for the state Wa­ter Re­sources Con­trol board.

I am hard­ly de­fend­ing the pan­han­dler in this sto­ry — to shoot a dis­abled gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ee be­cause he has re­fused to give you a dol­lar is hard­ly rea­son­able. But then again, and as I have point­ed out al­ready, there is noth­ing rea­son­able about re­fus­ing to give some­body a dol­lar when she has asked your for it.

What goes around comes around and all that jazz.

Part 2

From an ar­ti­cle in a Louisville news­pa­per: “A Shel­by Coun­ty man and his wife said two doc­tors am­pu­tat­ed the man’s pe­nis with­out his con­sent, and have filed a law­suit. Ac­cord­ing to the law­suit Philip Seaton, 61, went to have a cir­cum­ci­sion last Oc­to­ber as part of a treat­ment for a med­ical con­di­tion. Seaton said when he woke up from the pro­ce­dure, he re­al­ized his pe­nis had been amputated.”

I don’t re­al­ly have any fol­low-up for that. It is what it is, as they say these days — quite sim­ply, one of the most hor­ri­fy­ing things I have ever read. And now you have read it, too.

Filed under Non-Fiction on October 13th, 2008

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