In Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, Dr. Seuss devotes a two-page spread to the Waiting Place. The words and pictures haunt me. Waiting for the sun to shine. Waiting for a better break. Waiting, waiting, waiting. I’m tired of waiting. The Kinks song is playing in my head, “So tired/tired of waiting for you. . .” And then, before I could even type that last sentence, it was supplanted or, more properly, overlaid, like you’d see in a stack of partially transparent materials, by the Beatles’ song on The White Album, John Lennon’s slightly slurred voice repeating, “I’m so-o-o tired/I haven’t slept a wink/I’m so-o-o-o tired/My mind is on the blink. . . I wonder should I call you. . .” I’m always wondering whether I should call you. And wondering what to call you. Wondering what to call myself. But I’m off track again, moving forward into the not-yet-thought of my five minutes of waiting instead of the already-thought-about that I sat down to record.
The fundamental problem has doubled back on itself. Now I have to worry, not only about how I got from there to here, but how that here become another there. We only have two tenses, but our experiences nest like those Russian dolls in the opening credits for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Where was I? That’s a better question, precise as it is vague. I was waiting, reading Audre Lord. “I do not mix/love with pity/nor hate with scorn,” she writes. “I am/woman/and not white.” Or, “My mother had two faces and a frying pot,” or, “her breasts are huge exciting anchors,” or, “The Coniagui women/wear their flesh like war.” Snails eat the corpse of a snake struck by lightning. I am where I do not belong. And now I am rereading past the point where I was, reading ahead against my orders, the orders I’ve given myself. “Thunder is a woman with braided hair,” she writes. “My throat in the panther’s lair/is unresisting.”
What was I trying to express? We are what we eat. I eat words. But what comes out in the end bears no clear relation to what we take in. I am not woman and white. Everything is inappropriate. "Identity is both a shelter and a prison," I tell my students. "The trick is to maximize the percentage of the former." I wonder, though, what that really means. Is it simply a matter of perception? I look at the bars in front of me, panther pacing back and forth for the paying customers, and see a prison. I look at those same bars, fortified by an inappropriate mixture of Stoicism, Emerson, and Zen, and see windows a soul can pass through with ease.
If I read Audre Lord, does that mean she is part of me? My class floods me with pictures. Not just Oedipa, sick of the Tupperware seal, a prison to prevent decay. Not just Acosta, shedding his legal degree like sunburn. But Rabbit, remembering what it felt like to have an illusion of freedom. “Got a wife and kids in. . .” No, not Baltimore. It’s Redding, Pennsylvania, I realize, though I want it to be Bethlehem, though it might as well be, given the description. Hills. Run-down houses. A despair drained of color. What’s the name of that town as you come over the hill, when you drive in off 309? Fountain Hill? The slopes are improbable, the steelworks spread out somewhere below and, if you look back up the hill you drove down on from the valley, then track the ridgeline heading, I don’t know, east, away from 309, you can see the corporate offices glinting near the top, Olympian lair of a once-great corporation.
There were plenty of black people in the metropolitan area, but I never saw them. The supermarket was filled with Puerto Rican and Hungarian goods, but all I saw were ashen faces and faded wood façades. This is how race works in the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth-largest cities in Pennsylvania. And this is how it works on me now, pulling my mind from The Black Unicorn into white flight, a shot of James Caan peering through his windshield, fleeing his vanishing point. Talk about suture. The first thing I notice when I see a film set are the cars with cameras on their hoods. When I see his face, I’m looking over my shoulder. We all are. The rear-view mirror shows the driver his past. That shot through the windshield shows us ours.
And what do I see? A man who is tired of waiting for more of the same. “What happens to a dream deferred?” It’s black history month and I keep seeing dingy whiteness. Bruce Springsteen is a bard of dingy whiteness. John Cougar Mellencamp is too. And all those Brits as well. If boredom is what makes us human, then the bit players in my past must be humanists. I would sit in front of the television, watching those first years of Sesame Street and think, “I want to live there, where there’s more brown than gray.” I would sit in front of the television, watching LeVar Burton and Ben Vereen, and think, “I’m waiting for my Tennessee.” Terribly inappropriate, I’m sure, but as true as anything else I’ve written about race and class.
When you pull the dead ones from the ground, the roots are gone. The sight of that lack disturbs me. Charles Olson advises, “whatever you have to say, leave/the roots on, let them/dangle.” And I agree. But when there’s nothing there, all that will dangle is air. So I sit and I wait and I read, troubled by the realization that The Black Unicorn seems more plausible to me than a white one. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Entropy, on the other hand, will. Did I mention that I’m tired? Did I tell you how much I want to call? Did I make it clear how desperate I am to find a calling, one that will pry me loose from all this tedium?