Riding Toward Everywhere
EcooCopyright © 2008 William T. Vollmann
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-06-125675-2
Chapter One A Short Essay on Freight Trains
I am my father's son. On a recent Christmas, in the bakery which not only is the best in town but never forgets it, we were waiting to pick up our pie, and my father came to my side to chat with me. One of the highest sugar-and-butter arbiters, who puts the public in its place even in seasons when it cannot overwhelm her, commanded: Sir, you need to stop blocking the line right now!-My father turned to me and remarked conversationally: Give some people a little power and they turn into Nazis, don't they?
My father grew up in an era when to be an American-a white American, at least-was to be yourself. In some respects his generation was more ignorant, complacent, self-centered and parochial than mine. For better and for worse, it actually believed in progress, which is to say that it was also more sure of itself, comparatively self-reliant and accordingly less corrupted by toadying-more American in the best sense. My grandfather's time must have been even more individualistic. With his by-Gods and goddamns, my grandfather laid down opinions without great reverence for the judgments of others. -I just don't know, Bill, he said once at a museum exhibit on the history of female suffrage. Maybe we shouldn't have given women the vote. What do you think? -And he got his reward: glares of hatred and outrage from all ladies present. -Does contrarianism equal freedom of thought? I prefer my grandfather's abrasive and frequently tedious self-assertion to my neighbors' equivalently wrongheaded chorus. But should I label him any the less conformist? He once told me that if I had been his son he would have beaten my differentness out of me. It was his faith that American authority could do no wrong, in evidence of which I quote one of his pronouncements: You know what burns me up? All those rioters complaining about the police trampling on their rights! Don't they get it? When there's a riot, those sons of bitches have no rights! -As for my father, his epoch was the heyday of the Organization Man, and he respected rules, hierarchies and technocratic methods more than he knew; he simply happened to be good enough to make some of the rules. I once asked him why he wore a suit every working day, and he replied that one picks one's battles and he had more interesting battles to fight than dress code skirmishes. He was right. When I need to meet somebody important in Japan, I wear my suit. It is probable that my father enjoys his suits more than I do. In any event, fortified by them he looked factory managers in the eye and told them exactly where they were screwing up. -Weren't you just a little hard on those guys? an Associate Vice-President inquired-an accolade my father reported with glee. He taught his students without fear or favor, never missing a lecture in all the decades of his career. He worked hard, lived the life he chose, and said precisely what he thought. On his desk lay a paperweight engraved with his favorite motto: Bullshit Baffles Brains.
I am my father's son, which is to say that I am not exactly my father. In some ways I am shyer than he, in others more extreme and bold. My father believes that drugs should be legalized, regulated and taxed. So do I. My father has never sampled a controlled substance and never will. I've proudly committed every victimless crime that I can think of. My father actively does not want to know which acts I have performed and with whom.
I still go to the bakery my father hates, and the woman who told my father to get back in line nods at me. My father will never go back there. Perhaps if I were more my father's son I wouldn't patronize the place, either. But I am less proud than he, more submissive-or maybe more indifferent.
I work hard, make money, not as effectively as my father did but well enough to get by. I say what I think, and sometimes get a reward surpassing my grandfather's: death threats. So far, I've never missed a deadline for a term paper, a review, a manuscript. I perform the mumbo-jumbo of voting with belief in my heart, I've not yet won even a jaywalking ticket, and unlike my father, whom I fault in this respect, I refrain from opting out of jury duty; instead, they mostly kick me out.
My father hates organized religion, probably because he hates the God who killed his little girl back in 1968. I find religions variously bemusing. My father likes nice cars and is a sucker for the latest gadget. I enjoy the few mechanical devices which are simple enough for me to understand, such as semiautomatic pistols. My father hunted in his youth and still occasionally shoots handguns with me, but has come to disapprove of civilian firearms ownership, an attitude which disappoints me. He has voted Republican most of his life, but he and I agree in hating the current President.
My father has lived in Europe for many years. I am not sure that he realizes how much his native country has changed. People don't dare anymore to talk back the way he used to.
As I get older, I find myself getting angrier and angrier. Doubtless change itself, not to mention physical decline and inevitable petty tragedies of disappointed expectations, would have made for resentment in any event; but I used to be a passive schoolboy, my negative impulses turned obediently inward. Now I gaze around this increasingly un-American America of mine, and I rage.
So many of these developments are well-meaning. Children must buckle up in the school buses, and, speaking of children, I had better not enter into conversation with a child I don't know, in case the parents brand me ...