Sunday, April 17, 2022

The San Antonio Incident

Me outside the Rothko Chapel. April 2022.

 

 I walked in Menil Park in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston. A group of fifteen young people in their early twenties lounged in the cool morning sunshine. They were probably students of the nearby University of St. Thomas. They were enjoying themselves and were loud to my middle age years, but not loud for college students. Maybe they were not loud at all and I just have sharp ears. I neared them and adjusted the strap of the overburdened leather messenger bag on my right shoulder. I was glad for my dark black Ray-Bans so that the students could not see my eyes looking at the ground. I was nervous. The San Antonio incident was less than twenty-four hours ago and my third cup of coffee had not yet fixed my morning mood.

My sleep was the standard eight hours of dead-to-the-world goodness that I can achieve in a hotel as long as I sleep on the side nearest the wall and I can see the door – old habits? Perhaps there is no way to rewire my brain after thirty-eight years. As a bonus I did not remember any dreams and the dose of melatonin must have seen to that. Before the beginning of this trip I had one vivid dream that ended in waking up covered in sweat. I dismissed it as fatigue; work on the house and the novel for the past six months caught up with me that night. Someone had written something about abuse that bothered me too, but I kept pushing it aside and knew that I would find a way to address that in time.

Montrose is hip, arty and the closest thing Houston has to a gay neighborhood, but this is Texas. I hated to concede to that thought of fear and reminded myself that yesterday was San Antonio not Houston. I remembered all of the good times I had years ago in Dallas and Fort Worth dancing and stumbling around S4 and Throckmortons. Texas can be cool. It was Cobb County, Georgia in 1995 when I was assaulted over a rainbow sticker on my car.

I was dressed in a black jacket, a dark blue shirt and dark jeans in Menil Park. It was my invisibility cloak. It was my do-not-notice-me outfit. I wished my hair was longer, but I cut it off last month and I am not twelve anymore.

Keep walking. Always keep walking. Do not stop on the side of the road in New Hope, a trail in the woods, or the streets of San Antonio. Walk.

“Hey faggot,” he called at me.

A man in his twenties secured my attention that was elsewhere. He leaned against a railing on N. Presa Street in San Antonio that I was walking past a few feet away.

I matched his voice to the background noise I heard before he called to me. I had not understood what he said before as he was of no interest to me until then. I was walking down the street in my own world in a new city to me. The surrounding streetscape was of little interest on that block and my mind must have been steps ahead on the beautiful Riverwalk.

It was early afternoon on a sunny April weekday, people passed between his menacing smile and my rock hard glare. I was stunned for seconds then my anger brought me back. I assessed the threat and my middle finger saluted the guy.

He smirked at my digital reply.

I walked away, glancing back twice to make sure I was not followed..

That was the end of the face to face encounter with the bigot. Had this been a duel we had both fired and winged each other, in chess it was a stalemate and in reality it was unfortunate. Had I been of a younger generation, I suppose I could have whipped out my phone and confronted the guy for a viral moment, but despite what the eager sales lady at the Houston Saks department store would say to me the following day, I am not of the younger generation. I am not wired to think phone first before anything else. I am grateful for the emotional maturity that I have earned.

I passed through the students in Menil Park as a ship coming into a fogged over port.

Inside the Rothko Chapel, I signed the register and sat in the security enforced silence. The worn wooden benches without backs looked like something from a rustic wilderness campground. I examined the dark paintings on every wall. This was depressing and if this experience was intended to be spiritual then the outlook was bleak. All I had was a thought of how they resembled the black monolith from the Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I loved that film, but these paintings were like staring at the soot covered back of a fireplace. Rothko's other paintings held such power and intensity, these were as if he was resigned to the nothingness or The Nothing that wanted to devour all of Fantastica in The Neverending Story. He killed himself in 1970, not long after these were painted.

I left after five minutes. The weight inside was too much. That was a tomb inside a coma where dreams were impossible. Outside I laughed. It was the appropriate response a living person would have to shake off that darkness. I did not want that to cling to me like yesterday. The loud college students were the sound of life.

I came expecting to hear Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel playing in the background; that might have helped with the experience some and made it more spiritual. Feldman wrote Why Patterns? which I consider to be the natural sound of New Hope and mentioned it in Dweller On The Boundary.

In the reflecting pool I saw myself. I was not invisible, but my profile was low. There was no rainbow sticker on my forehead, but the contradiction I cannot solve floated in the water like oak leaves.

A contradiction exists in how I write and how I live. It is difficult for me to reconcile this and it was the same problem when I was in broadcasting. I hated to tell people that I worked at The Weather Channel and was on radio stations across the country from New York to Los Angeles, but people would ask what I did for living as a way to measure and judge me. Work for most people is a means to an end and I no more impressed with a physician than I am the cashier at Home Depot. It felt like boasting to say that I did television voice overs, commercials and had been a disc jockey too. It brought unwanted attention from the woman that cut my hair, to drive-thru bank tellers and I suspect one guy slept with me just because of how I made money. People did not think of me that way when I had worked in a warehouse and drove a forklift between radio gigs.

My two books (and my next one this fall) are very revealing with midnight dark secrets long kept under lock and key, but I like for those books to speak for themselves. I wrote them and I lived them, but they are detached from the person I am today, though I am uncertain what the audience thinks. I live in the present, not in 1980 or 1990 or even 2021. Sometimes I believe that people expect me to be looking at the sky for a bird, sweeping away the stars on the ground, running through Rabbit Tobacco Field and being a reactionary chess player. I understand that people connected with that boy, my family,the tragedies or another part of the past on some level – all those things are me, but I do not live or think precisely the same in 2022.

When something big occurs in the present, I sometimes do share it on social media and it might not always be something good. Bad things do happen in the present and I am not one to construct a faux social media persona that consists of sunshine, rainbows and filtered selfies. The incident in San Antonio was such an occasion. A problem arises when it is expected of me to react in the same way that I would as a boy, teenager or a young man in my twenties. Life experience teaches humans to adapt in ways that lead to self improvement and for me that would be more restraint and patience. It does not mean that my passion for life is extinguished, it is a matter of keeping it under a more firm control. I learned that the only part of my existence that I control is myself. 

My reaction to the asshole in San Antonio was adequate and the incident did me no lasting harm. I was unhappy that it happened, but I was not about to give that stranger or the word faggot any more power over me. The incident shocked me, I thought about it until the next day and I let it roll off into the gutter where it belonged. My adult perspective was shaped by having been physically attacked in the long ago past and other experiences that I have written about from my childhood. Another person might react some other way and had it happened to a child or teenager then it may have caused them more lasting harm. Restraint was my best weapon against this fool on the street on this particular day. Had I reacted in kind towards him then it possibly leads to an escalated situation that could include violence. I walked away with my dignity and he will remain a miserable asshole that I never will meet again. I understand my limitations and I cannot change him if I wanted nor can I change the world; idealism is a luxury of youth and the inexperienced. There will be random assholes on the street, the highway, the mall or out hiking on a trail and I accept that. Some might think it was the perfect opportunity for a 'teachable moment,' well let me see you try to educate an asshole like that. There is no utopia and if one did exist, it would be as boring as my white sock drawer. The only safe space is in your own home and head and for some they do not even have that.

In today's culture exists a tendency to overreact to every situation as if it was a choice between life and death. I am no sociologist, but I believe that social media is in part to blame for this. Most of our challenges, setbacks and losses are not that crucial and as adults we should remember that. Another troubling trend in contemporary culture is a belief in some circles that words are equivalent to violence. If you believe that then you likely never have been subjected to actual violence. I suggest you take a fist to the face and tell me that feels the same as someone calling you a faggot on the sidewalk. They both hurt in different ways, but words do not make a face swell, make us bleed or die. As children we would say, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall not hurt me.” It was a defensive rebuttal to taunts that sounded nice at the time, but it did not provide me Teflon skin against the hurtful words. I felt bad from being called a queer or faggot or other things as a child, but not once did I suffer a physical scratch from a word. It was the hidden cumulative effects of those words over years that did me harm.

Words can incite violence, but they cannot jump from a printed page, a phone screen, or a fool's mouth to break your bones. An aunt slapped me into the next day when I was a boy, the only time I was slapped as a child, and that was violence. I was in two school fights when I experienced the sick feeling of my fist driving into another boy's flesh and that was violence. A word, any word, will not make knuckles hurt. Words may grab the heart, arouse the mind, generate goosebumps, make us laugh, cry or feel an emotional response of some kind, but show me one cut, bruise or x-ray of a broken bone caused by a word.

As I have written about in Dweller On The Boundary, I was a reactionary chess player growing up and that style of play cost me more games than it won. I am not the same little boy under Robin's wing getting worked up at the stupid games of the Cannon Creek Boys. I am less reactionary as an adult and the words hurt me less. The internal scars that I wrote about do however remain. Sometimes people trip over them without knowing. I forgive them. I trip over them too. I do not easily speak of some of them. I should not have to do that, there are two books that lay out in detail what happened. You either want to know or you do not.

Thank you for reading. I keep walking.