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“Do you remember when you first bumped up against the real world?” Stuart was looking philosophical. “I mean, when you first came to the realization that all was not what it seemed?”

I thought about it for a moment, but then, of course, I realized that Stuart wasn’t so much asking a question about my life, as stating a prologue to his next monologue. 

“It was in high school,” he said. “It was in the 1960s and I was notoriously bored in school. The worst was study hall — really, a holding cell between classes where no one actually studied. I hated it. Where was Temple Grandin when you needed her? We were cattle in a pen. 

Vincent ‘the Chin’

“Mr. Taylor, the Latin teacher, took a liking to me. Not that many kids wanted to learn the ablative. And so, he managed to give me an entire pad of preprinted library passes, so I could spend my time among books, instead of among juvenile delinquents. Did I mention this was northern New Jersey and a large contingent of kids in class were the offspring of made men? Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante had a house not more than 200 yards from where I grew up — he was the famous ‘Oddfather,’ who feigned insanity to avoid criminal prosecution. (One day, years later, when I was in college, I heard on the radio that the entire police department from my town had been arrested for taking bribes.)

“Well, one day, for some reason, I had run out of library passes and was forced to go to study hall. I arrived early and the only other student was Artie Mangano. You have to remember that there is a pecking order in high school. I was a dyed-in-the-wool nerd. I liked books. Artie was the biggest thug around, both physically and in terms of where he ranked. I was his natural target. We had long established that fact.

“We sat near each other saying nothing. Artie may have been reading a comic book. When in walked Mrs. Fisk, the French teacher who was going to be prison guard for the next hour. Mrs. Fisk had a thick accent and no sense of humor.”

“I know the type,” I said. “They are the second lieutenants of the world, right out of OCS.”

“And on the blackboard — and in those days, the board was still slate and was still black — Mr. Taylor had drawn a map of the Roman Empire. There was Illyrium, there was Gallia Cisalpina. Of course, Mr. Taylor’s writing was nearly illegible. He was a scribbler and the map was rather squirrelly. When Mrs. Fisk looked at it, she turned and looked at Artie and me and asked angrily, ‘Who wrote this on the blackboard?’ 

“We didn’t know what she was talking about.

“She clapped her hands to keep our attention. ‘Who wrote this filth? These obscene things? I must have been one of you two.’

“We had no idea what she meant. It was a map of the Mediterranean, albeit, it looked a little like an unraveled ball of yarn. She glared at us, getting louder and more incensed. 

“You two — go down to the vice principal’s office. Now! And tell him what you have done!”

“Our school had the ultimate good cop-bad cop. The principal was the soft-spoken — and unfortunately named — Donald Duff. He took a lot of mocking for that name. The vice principal was the enforcer, the meter-outer of punishment, Mr. Garbaccio, a hard-hearted disciplinarian who resembled nothing so much as Luca Brasi. 

“We walked down the hall, down the stairs and into the office. Artie was used to this routine; I was not. I was both mortified and outraged and at the same time unseemly meek and cowed. We sat in the outer office waiting for Mr. Garbaccio to finish with the miscreants ahead of us in line.

“When it came our turn, I tried to explain to him what was the reality: Mr. Taylor’s map of the Roman world offended Mrs. Fisk, who mistook it for an obscene graffito. 

“ ‘She wouldn’t have sent you down here for nothing,’ he said. Yes, she would, I thought. She was always kind of goofy. I remonstrated and re-explained. Artie said nothing. Since I was a reputed ‘good kid’ and had never been in his office before, and because Mr. Taylor’s handwriting was so well known, Mr. Garbaccio let up the pressure, but that didn’t help and so he said, ‘I understand. But, I’m going to have to give you two points anyway.’

“Discipline for misdemeanors was given out in the form of points. Collect enough and you were suspended. Artie knew the process well. I was a novice. My sense of injustice was boiling. I knew I had done nothing wrong. There is nothing so pure in this world as the flame of outrage in a kid who knows he has been unfairly blamed. 

“Two things of note resulted from this episode. First was that somehow I had acquired an unearned respect from Artie. He no longer bullied me, and in fact, his presence meant that none of his fellow mouth-breathers molested me anymore, either. It was a kind of privileged existence, a pet-nerd. We had shared a visit to Mr. Garbaccio. 

“But the second thing was that I figured out something about the real world: that sometimes form required a knowing injustice for the purpose of maintaining order, that I would have to accept my two points so that Mrs. Fisk wouldn’t be publicly outed as the flibbertigibbet that we all knew she was. The world worked by its own gears and pulleys, and sometimes the innocent get ground up in the machine. 

“You know, when you are in high school and you are given required reading, it usually sails right over your head. You don’t have enough life experience to understand what is going on with Mr. Darcy or with Fagin. They are just cardboard cutouts moving through a plot that you know you will be quizzed on come Tuesday. Really, high school kids are so much unformed clay, unlicked whelps, thinking they are so wise; but they are really just pimply-faced dorks with breaking voices and enough social anxiety to fuel a nuclear sub. 

“I mention this because when we were assigned to read Melville’s Billy Budd, I was hit upside the head with recognition — alone in the class, I knew for the first time what was really going on. I knew why the ‘handsome sailor’ had to die. I had understood the lesson of Mr. Garbaccio’s office and I felt a deep surging of sympathy for Captain Vere. He was not the villain, after all. He was understanding the bigger picture. The lesson was sobering but has been reinforced many times through the years.

“I memorized a lot of facts and dates in high school, was introduced to Shakespeare and Spanish pronouns, but all that is just information — confetti. It didn’t actually mean anything. True, I have drawn on that information a lot, but it is just the boards and nails I can use to construct a sense of the world. What I got from my two points was the only thing I can claim to have genuinely learned in high school.” 

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

bookshelves

Of the 20 books on my top 10 list, none of them comes from my high school years. This is hardly surprising; adolescence is a time apart from the normal flow of life — actually years of pupation between childhood and adulthood, spent in a chrysalis of self-regard, dread and hero worship.

That doesn’t mean books weren’t important. Indeed, they may have been most important in those years, but it does mean that the books that were important then have faded. Indeed, have become more likely a source of personal embarrassment as we remember them. selby cover

For me, those years were filled with almost obsessive reading. I ate up books like potato chips, at times during summer vacations at the rate of a book-a-day. And I devoured more contemporary fiction than I have at any other period in my life. I read everything Saul Bellow had written up to that time. I read John Updike, Malcolm Purdy, Hubert Selby Jr., Thomas Pynchon, Jules Feiffer, James Drought, Herbert Roth, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer and a host of others I cannot recall at the moment.

The fact I don’t recall them is germane. I hardly remember what was in any of these books because, clearly, I was reading way over my head. What could a goyishe 14-year-old suburban boy, pimply-faced and horny, ever understand about urban Jewish angst or African-American anger? Simply beyond my realm of experience. More to my concern: whether my shoes were pointy enough, my hair wavy enough and if my trousers had cuffs or not. I forget now whether it was cool to have cuffs or supremely uncool. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI tried to instruct my parents in these finely parsed issues, but they were too block-headed to understand.

And speaking of not understanding: My young libido, raging but unfocused, led me to Terry Southern’s Candy and Robert Gover’s One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding. It was my primary source of sex education, and it is a wonder to this day that I survived.

But I’m dancing around the central issue. The bible of pubescence was and remains J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Here was a book that addressed my concerns directly, that understood my life from the inside, that expressed those unsayable thoughts. I gobbled it up, and all the Glass family sagas and short stories. I wanted more; there were no more.

There were other books that teens revered, and I read those, too: John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies — which, because I was a teenager and therefore an idiot, so it never bothered me that Golding told of a world-view diametrically opposed to Salinger’s fable of self-righteous innocence. catcher cover

Holden Caulfield recognized the essential hypocrisy of adulthood and pointed fingers everywhere but reflexively. The purity of his heart guarded the cleanliness of his soul. I signed on. It was society that was rotten.

Of course, looking back, one realizes Holden Caulfield was the biggest phony of them all. But it is the nature of hucksters and demogogues that they project their limitations outward. It is what makes them so convincing, at least to the unformed souls they lead around by the nose.

I have tried to reread Salinger a few times as a grown-up, but the treacle leaves an unpleasant coating on the inside of my mouth.

My self-image at the time was that I was a budding bohemian, that I was an intellectual among cattle. I had subscriptions to Evergreen magazine and Paul Krassner’s The Realist. I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mots. I listened most nights in my bed to Jean Shepherd on the radio, and never really understood that the “hipsters” he railed against were the very people I idealized. evergreen 1965Irony, at that age, is invisible. We look right through it without seeing it. I went to Greenwich Village every opportunity I got and frequented the Sheridan Square Paperback Corner.

Lordy, I was a pretentious twit.

There were books I was required to read for school, but while these books are worthy, they are wasted on adolescents who cannot grasp their import. I read The Great Gatsby for school, and never quite understood that Gatsby was a gangster. Over my head. The Scarlet Letter was assigned, and I don’t think I even understood that Pearl was Hester’s daughter. I’m not sure why a punk kid was ever asked to read such a rich and subtle book. There was clearly no way I could wrap my tiny, unformed brain around the complexity of that book — to say nothing of the boredom induced by paragraphs that long without being broken up into constant bites of dialog.

There was a tendency during those years, when introduced to a book I enjoyed, to attempt to read everything else by that author. Gobble it all up, nine-yards and a tail. That is the way it was with the Glass family, and that is how it was with Jack Kerouac.juliette greco

There was scarcely a Kerouac book in print in the mid-1960s, that I didn’t inhale, starting with On the Road, which I read twice. I fantasized riding the rails, driving a broad-hipped Hudson at a hundred miles an hour through the nights of Nebraska, listening to Ornette Coleman and dispensing off-the-cuff witticisms to the Juliette Greco on my lap. When I had a chance to travel to Europe between my junior and senior years, I took Lonesome Traveler with me, and in the bookstalls along the Seine in Paris, found Big Sur and Subterraneans in British paperback editions.

I am amazed when I look back, at how much I read — all of which was outside schoolwork, which I neglected. And I am amazed now at how little of anything I read then I retained. It went through me like a sieve. All that verbiage accumulated around me like gravel around a caddis fly larva, and when I left for college, I shed that cocoon and started fresh with a new set of enthusiasms.

Next: Reading outside the curriculum