I can’t remember the name of my first community college professor, and wouldn’t use it if I did, so I’ll call him Mr. Bork. He taught English at Reading Area Community College. His experience of life centered around keeping himself “fat, dumb, and happy.” He’d accomplished amazing things in fatness. He told stories of growing up in a single-parent home, never traveled any distance without a copy of the Portable Dorothy Parker, and talked a lot about Judy Garland.
His weight, thrift-store-button-up shirts, and community-college teaching job conspired to hide his homosexuality from me. I didn’t put it together until eight years later, as I told my wife about him. I heard myself quote him talking about the “divine Judy Garland” and felt my mind shed pounds of naiveté. I stopped my story and said, “Oh. He was gay.” My wife looked at me quizzically, clearly thinking, “How could there have been a question?”
He required revisions on papers, which I’d never experienced before. I handed everything in as a first-draft and late. Teachers in high-school had never penalized me for this, but in Bork’s class the revisions were built into the process and tardiness meant a full letter-grade demotion. Grades in humanities classes equaled a precise method of evaluating my self-worth. Mr. Bork was playing me against myself.
He set the last day he’d accept a revised paper on a Friday, and since I hadn’t finished by our Thursday class period, I had to drive to Reading on an off-day to hand it in. I still lived at home, so I asked Nathan, my thirteen-year-old brother, if he wanted to ride with me, and then get mall Chinese food. Of course he would. We were going to drive the Peugeot, the sportiest, Frenchest car we’d ever owned. It had a sun-roof. The day was hot.
As we drove we listened to Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds’ Live at Luther College. Dave Matthews asked, “Could I have been a parking lot attendant?” and I thought, “Good question, Dave Matthews.” Dave Matthews asked, “Could I have been your little brother?” and I thought “See, it’s about identity.”
Dave Matthews then got suddenly tired of this line of thought and mentioned that he felt dark sometimes, but then, we had to assume, Dave Matthews worried that this might sound too dark, and reassured us that he’d work it out. I felt reassured. “You will work it out, Dave Matthews,” I thought.
We dropped the paper off and got back on the freeway to drive to the mall.
We played CDs in the Peugeot through a Discman to tape-deck arrangement. Nathan held the Discman on his lap.
“What should we listen to next?” Nathan asked.
I kept an approximate eye on the road and looked through the CDs we had on hand. We had five Dave Matthews’ CDs. We had one Phish CD (Dave Matthews had opened for Phish). I couldn’t find the Rolling Stones’ Through the Past, Darkly CD. I looked up at the road again. A greatest hits collection, the Rolling Stones album had “She’s a Rainbow” which I’d been listening to a lot (Dave Matthews had opened for The Rolling Stones as well).
I looked up at the road. I kept one hand on the wheel, leaned forward a bit, and patted under my seat. I felt the edge of a CD case. As I brought it out, I saw a familiar looking offramp. I turned onto the offramp as I handed the CD to Nathan. As soon as the CD left my hand, my attention freed up, and I wondered if I’d taken the wrong offramp. We stopped at the sign at the end of the offramp. We realized that we’d taken the wrong offramp, and at the moment this dawned on both of us, the city of Reading heard the crack of the thought crystalizing in the space between our minds.
The offramp was a magic portal to Mexico. But not a portal to Secure Resort, Swim in the Ocean, Can’t Believe How Cheap the Liquor is Here, Mexico. It was a portal to I Found Six Human Heads in the Gutter in Front of My House, Mexico.
On at least one of those lists of the top-ten most dangerous cities in the US, Reading, Pennsylvania hovers fifth or sixth place for populations between 75,000 and 99,999. We didn’t know this, and we didn’t need to. We felt the danger, like Bambi’s mother. Residents had moved “not littering” way down their list of priorities. Trash papier mache’d the streets. Our tires didn’t touch pavement. This was an entire neighborhood you could feature on Hoarders.
It still impresses me that we just needed to see a high volume of trash to know that we shouldn’t be there. It tipped us off instantly.
When you’re trying to drive slowly and thoughtfully you feel that the car itself has taken on your attitude of concern and timidity. It feels like observers outside of the car don’t have to look at the operators of the vehicle to gauge their confidence. The car tucks its tail between its legs, and anyone can tell that.
We drove past two guys on the corner and they stared.
We’d taken a right onto the offramp. We’d now taken a right at the end of the offramp. If we took one more right, we’d be heading back where we’d come from. I turned right onto a one way street, going with the flow of traffic, incredibly. The buildings here were pure public-housing.
As soon as we turned, we saw three cars stopped up ahead of us. A van with its flashers going sat at the head of the bottle-neck. I don’t recall whether or not going around all three cars was impossible, but I reasoned from inference that it simply wasn’t done.
I hadn’t spoken since we’d taken the offramp. Neither had Nathan. We sat there in silence. I flicked the door locks, and Nathan shivered at the noise. He stared straight ahead.
I tried not to move much, out of the apparent belief that maybe this neighborhood’s inhabitants had vision that relied on movement. In my peripheral vision, I saw lots of kids. The kids weren’t paying attention to us.
We had no idea what was going on with the van. To the cars in front of us, nothing could have been more normal than what we were doing right then, sitting motionless in our cars in the heat, behind a maybe abandoned van.
After five minutes, a woman came out of one of the buildings on our right, ducked into the van, emerged with bags of groceries, and headed back into the building.
We were waiting for someone to unload their groceries. We were white kids in a predominately hispanic part of Reading, and a predominately terrifying part of Reading. I’m not saying that it’s right that we believed that the individual attributes of “hispanic” and “terrifying” were related, it’s just how we felt at the moment.
The kids began to move nearer to the car. We hadn’t put our windows up. Now I decided we needed to put our windows up. The kids watched as the windows went up. They came nearer.
I remember them pointing at us and laughing. I’m not saying it happened. It’s entirely possible that my memory just boiled the situation down into clichéd TV beats, but we felt like they were pointing at us and laughing.
At this point, we couldn’t conceive of this ending. We’d now sat motionless for ten minutes. Stopping here at all was unthinkable. Stopping here for ten minutes stretched the mind to its limits. We continued to sit.
And then the door to the building moved again. The woman came out, grabbed more grocery bags. The door to the van shut. The woman waved to the driver. The van’s flashers turned off. We were about to move.
Then—thwap—one of the kids’ hands slapped against Nathan’s window. Another hand slapped the trunk of the car. A kid popped up next to my window, his knuckles appeared, the skin flattened, the glass sounded. More noise from all around the car. Then the cars in front of us began to move. I drove forward. The noise stopped. We found our way out of the neighborhood. It was easy. We put on another Dave Matthews CD. We shuddered and breathed deep. We got mall Chinese food.
I don’t like that story, and I think I know why. I don’t like the idea of being that afraid about that little. I don’t like the idea of being as inherently xenophobic and pseudo-racist as that story makes me look. I don’t know what the active choice in that situation could have been, but I don’t like thinking about how I didn’t take it.
I had a dream about this happening again, several years ago. Nathan and I get stuck in the same bad spot in Reading. But this time, when they knock on the windows, we roll them down. They hoist us out. They drive the Peugeot off. They carry us over their heads like groups of mice carry bound cats in cartoons. They take us up into that woman’s apartment. She helps them cut us into pieces. It gets better and it gets worse. They eat us. But our severed heads observe all of this, and observe all of it happily. We suffer the ordeal without fear. Our severed heads smile. When I have this dream, I snap awake. But I’m not sweating or screaming or worried. Even though it’s 4:30 AM I feel rested and energized.
I raise myself up out of bed and go make breakfast.