Letter to Dominic from the Streets of Oakland

From the desk drawer of the Editor:

Suppose Gorbachev and Reagan were to meet, and they agreed to abolish nuclear weapons.

But they already have.  They agreed in Iceland to cut arsenals in half by 1990, and then fade them out after that.

But when they came back from the summit, this Administration’s advisor denied the agreement.  Just a preliminary feeler, he said.

Wh . . . ?  words fail to describe the weird sensation I get inside, when or where I think I’m living in a world where nobody remembers anything.    Where Nixon is impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors” — no, resigns because impeachment is certain — when all he did was cover up the investigation of a politically-inspired burglary, while there’s no question of impeachment of Reagan for violating Congressional laws and his own U.S. agreements to foreign countries, for running a private war, for promising to depose the leader of Iraq to please the same Islamic leaders we are now flagrantly goading into a war . . .

Not impeach Reagan?  Let us do it now, before it’s too late!  Ah, but I’m just a discredited former radical.  Let me put this in context.

Sometimes, actually quite often, I find myself recalling the streets of Marblehead.  The Town Square at one end of State Street, with the basically one-room Old Town House that used to quarter our police department when you and I were children, and the run up Washington Street hill leading over the hill from the harbor area to the plaza with the YMCA building down the street from our old home on Bowdoin Street (that spelling, of course, may be wrong, but it does recall a New England small college even if it is wrong).

And if I think of that long-ago trip that you and I took through Europe in the Opel Kadett sports coupé Dad gave me, the roads, the streets, the experiencing of winding through the Alpine valleys sount of Salzburg into the snowbound Innsbruck (there was snow on the peaks all around; it was mid-summer, maybe July), and descending from there through the valleys of Tyrol to the straight roads crossing the plan of the Po Valley, lined on either side with rows of poplars.  You mentioned in our phone conversation that you have to return to me my journal of that trip; but the experiences I remember, journal or no, are the streets.

Lest you think me monomaniacal, as you may unless you happen to share this same (to me so far) inexplicable predilection, I attribute it to a (perhaps) stronger than average spatial sense.  Just as my first wife’s graphic imagination was strongly connected to her appreciation for Chinese characters so my spatial, basically mathematical logical mind fastens its imaginative grasp on the network of roads I have traveled.

Of course it is ridiculous to say this is almost a religion with me, and it is not, as I am not engaged in a survey of the structure of my world but simply examining my own, as it were, mental furniture.  The astronomer whose dreams consist of reliving the MBTA stops from Northeastern University to Revere Beach, who finds personal significance in the panorama of proceeding from Logan Airport to the Lynnway to Clifton Avenue and to the adolescent home.  But no, I am not an astronomer, am I?  — just a wouldbe astronomer.

Would-be reformer.  Would-be historian.  Would-be teacher.  The situation is exemplified, and I flatter myself my confusing effort to provide a global context to a personal existential conflict acquires some point, from my recent experiences with the streets of Oakland.

I’ve lived for over four years now in a boarding house (for so I describe the modest building with ten habitable rooms in two stories, each big enough for a bed and a table and a sink and refrigerator) in downtown Oakland.  Off and on, not counting excursions around the country which invariably ended in dissatisfaction, I have been nineteen years in what they call the East Bay and which in my case reduces to Berkeley and Oakland, Oakland by far the greater part of the time.

So I feel the modest responsibilities and privileges of being a member of this community.  I feel it in an unorthodox manner perhaps, because I’m no member of a political organization, but maybe not so unusual, given the weird perspectives of the knee-jerk nonthinkers who pass for poetically active adults in our land these days.  In my own fashion I’ve lived here long enough to feel myself a part of an admittedly somewhat idiosyncratically-interpreted social fabric.

When I was first given a ticket for jaywalking a little less than a year ago, I felt irritated but paid the $25 without objecting.  On the second occasion two or three months later I argued with the cop. who told me that I was obliged to obey all traffic signals as a pedestrian.

Now you and I know that there is such a law on the books as part of the state code [we have to have some familiarity with traffic codes in order to get a driver’s license], but we also know that it isn’t usually enforced, because unenforceable.  Emotionally I rebelled, no doubt fueled by excessive use of marijuana, but intellectually bolstered in my rebellion by my desire to get a fair break for pedestrians.  When unposted speed limits, even if reasonable, are arbitrarily enforced in remote small towns, legally responsible citizens should appeal their convictions; à la Gandhi and M.L. King, we ought to refuse to obey them.  And that is what I did, repeating somewhat self-consciously an old destructive pattern in the now hopeful context of rationalizing the constructive aims of rebellion, something like by protection of the right to swim in Lake Merritt.  Which last is a story I’ll same for some other time.

It wasn’t long before I collected a whole string of jaywalking tickets, and the incidents, each one of which seemed absolutely justifiable at the time, an unselfish blow for the liberation from oppression of the silent vehicleless majority, began to jumble together in my mind. I tried to remember them by the dates or by the locations, but my memory tricked me again and again.  I forgot to appear at one group hearing, set a new court date, and unaccountably forgot to appear at the second scheduled hearing.  I was disappointed to find, at the hearing I did attend, that the arresting officers were quite prepared to lie on the stand in order to make the ticket stick, that the court was legally obliged to believe the officer’s unsubstantiated word against the defendant’s unsubstantiated word, no matter how implausible the questions the latter might put to the former could make that story appear (the officer’s story, that is; clarity does not always grace my locutions), and that refusal to pay was a separate offense which substantially increased the penalty.

Ah, but I would appeal and improve the law of my community!  I appealed all right.  The judge tossed out one count on a double-jeapordy consideration that I hadn’t even raised in my defense and suspended all fines until the appeal had been decided.  More than fair treatment.  I said in court that the jaywalking ordinance (the spelling might be wrong) would only be enforceable in downtown Oakland if it specifically enumerated a given area and had signs posted warning those entering not to jaywalk.  Imagine my surprise [a phrase I always seem to be writing, alas] when I found that the municipal code specified exactly what I wanted!  A downtown area within which the pedestrian could not jaywalk appeared in the code, with boundaries given — and the area was entirely reasonable, being perhaps 1/20 of the area of the city.

Honesty requires now that I pay my fines?  They are over $300 and my driver’s license has been revoked for failure twice to appear.  Doesn’t honesty require a great deal more, having to do with a questioning of initial motive, of the purpose of my action, of the worth of my protest?  I’m a banal echo, Dominic, of Gary Hart and Joe Biden; I’m a plagiarist who asks you to vote for him on account of his eloquence.  The only good thing is, now I wait at the light while others nervously glance from side to side and scurry across hoping not to be caught.  The law I want is already there, so I obey it and am happy to do so.  Is it good, do you suppose, to have learned submissiveness?  Whatever your answer, older brother, I don’t for a minute think so.

Integrity forces me to admit I have no integrity.  My dear mother on the telephone tells me that I never put my hands to her throat.  Is she right that I imagined it, or am I correct in believing her lying in order to protect me from the truth?

The pattern we used to espouse, we two when we were young and idealistic and growing into adults in the same family but in very different ways, the pattern we used to believe in was quite different for you and me.  You felt — and it was much more than a feeling, it was a conviction intensely believed and acted upon, something inherent in your felt personality and retained despite or even because of the personal cost — that social relations are the finest expression of humanity, and I felt drawn to a life of the mind.  Well, how has it turned out?  The sibling we all considered a featherweight, Margaret, is the center of gravity, such as it is, of our generation.  Yes, she has her troubles, but they don’t spring from lack of love.  There is sincere charity in action, in addition to hasty judgements and political opinions with which I disagree; it has happened that neighbors in Marblehead have referred to those very qualities of warmth, of human charity, of caring on Margaret’s part decades before I have been able to see them beneath her hidebound social views.  And the dimwit of the class is the only college professor!  Mark, whose every report card was the invariable occasion for another tongue-lashing from our father of so many admirable accomplishments, usually so sympathetic but uniformly negative with respect to his youngest son’s academic work, Mark despite it all is an honored, eminent, productive scientist!  You have had a long series of women fall in love with you.  I have made repeated beginnings of a number of studies.

Let’s dwell on younger brother Mark for a moment. Even discounting my own tendency to favor an underdog and looking at the story completely objectively, Mark has gotten a raw deal.  You said on the phone that he is something of a recluse, but certainly not the way our older brother Paul is.  In their presence you are constantly conscious of an attitude of obnoxious superiority from Paul — let us not inquire whether it is compensatory or not — where Mark is low-key, diffident, quite at ease with others.  Withal he may be the most emotionally mature of us all.  In any case, purely from the point of view of contribution to systematic knowledge, Mark earned his spurs with that master’s thesis that was a doctoral dissertation in everything but name, which exhausted its topic comprehensively and in detail, and for which he only receives reminders that he allowed himself to be swindled in the matter of credit by his advisor.

Mark won’t talk to me, if I understand his reasons, not because I bussed Patti on the shoulder when she refused her cheek, but because for years Mother demanded he respect his family obligations by taking me back.  He says his feelings toward me are elevated to the “litmus test” of his family loyalty.  Doesn’t he have any claim to appreciation, affection, and admiration on his own, regardless of his loyalty toward his eccentric sibling or lack of it?  In fact his claims are as large, especially with regard to admiration of his accomplishment, as those of any of us.

So to proceed by paradox, as a believer in neither Jesus nor Marx but a practitioner of their shard method may be said to do, what’s all this to do with dreams of the streets of my native town?  That is not the comfort that I might take it to be, but a warning.  The real world cannot be circumnavigated by means of images of remembered streets, especially when, as is the case in my impoverished imagination, they never have people in them.  The real streets of Oakland have traffic lights, and the lawyers I have loathed for a long time have anticipated by urge to borrow, so to speak, from Bakunin in order to assume an identity of negation.

So I write out my disillusion, Dominic, as the only therapy of an untimely intellectual superfluity.  If I oppress you and a regular circle of recipients with a spasmodic stream of ill-organized epistles, neither personal nor professional, neither poetry nor prose, it does articulate my interior life.  No claim is made, dear brother, that it is worth articulation: we are dealing with an endless autobiographical preface to a creative opus which never appears: the validating sequel to this self-indulgence does not exist . . .

Yet, Dominic, that circulation of my scribblings to a small group of people who on balance would rather I wouldn’t, that offensive act of vanity which imposes on others, that affords me some small measure of sharing my humanity with my real fellows — those who know me and dislike me precisely for my pretensions.  Seidel rightly predicts the production of indifference, eventually, among the ones chosen to be favored with my efforts to express an internal chaos.

The ostensible object of this epistle is or was the comminication of the comparative cost of land and air transportation to your suburban site from my center-city ghetto.  $101 by bus; $120 by air.  Girard and Nix, whom I hope to see on my trip, will get a copy of this, as will Seidel, Mark, Margaret, and Paul.

And just so that I exceed the bounds of reasonableness so will three women I don’t believ you know: Vali Balint of Oakland, Trudi Markiw of Portland, na Peggy McChristian of Oklahoma City.  Le Bon Dieu has three personalities and they are all feminine.

About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
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