Sunday, March 12, 2017

Thomas & Little Man

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- 'Here, take a look at all this'. The high school student I tutor slides across the table a thick stack of papers. It's a new assignment: write a personal essay. 'I'm lost', he says. 'I'm not even sure what a personal essay is. You can help me with it.
- I didn't know you tutored.
- On and off for decades. I've written about it on occasion in personal essays of my own. As a matter of fact that is what I proposed to my student: I'd talk him through an essay as I composed one, there at table in his house. I flipped through the pages of instructions and sample essays included in the pile of papers provided by his teacher, getting a feel for my competition, then moved back before me the meal of Indian food his mother usually serves me when I come over to their house so I could eat as I talked. According to his teacher, I , a personal essay is a story from your life together with ideas. Which did he think went first, I ask my student, story or idea? Was story to illustrate idea, or idea develop out of story? No idea, he answered. Which was it? The way I do it, I said, neither, or rather a little of both. Not beginning with story, interpreting it with ideas, nor beginning with ideas, illustrating them with story. I begin with something that has happened, happened obscurely, an episode or incident. The happening or episode or incident isn't quite a story and doesn't immediately suggest any idea. I can't see where it comes from and where its going. It's meaning isn't clear.
- Then what?
- As I tell the story see what develops. Here commences my essay, as recited to my student. I'd biked down from UCLA to Westwood after the library closed. It was almost midnight. Starbucks was closing too. Coming out I saw Thomas, or rather, Thomas & Little Man, his contact ID as he'd entered it in my phone. Little Man was the little dog he cradled in his arms as he sat in cafes, looking out the window or tapping telephone messages. Mostly Little Man slept in his arms, stretched out, lying on his back, legs stiffly extended strait up. 'Look at his little paws', Thomas would say, 'just like a bear. I love Little Man. And he loves me! Don't you love me, little doggie? Yes you do, yes you do.' Thomas is in love with his dog. He is middle-aged, well dressed in clean new clothes: chinos, button down shirt, corduroy jacket. He strikes up conversations at cafes and offers his services as movie or music producer.
- He isn't really a producer?
- He's in love with his dog, has no car, usually doesn't order anything at the cafes, his phone has a broken screen...
- Did he offer you a job?
- He did: manager of a band on tour. I accepted.
- And?
- I'm waiting. Following out through the door of Starbucks was another man of the same age in a leather motorcycle jacket, electric guitar hanging from his neck along with a portable amplifier. He start strumming a pounding rhythm. Thomas introduces us, asks if I'd like to go with them to Denny's, open 24 hours. At Denny's I'm the only one who orders: two dollar stack of two pancakes. No beverage. Tell me about himself, I say to the Rock 'n' Roller. Yes, says Thomas, tell him about your trip to Los Vegas. He was tired of the scene in L.A., so he caught a bus. By chance there was a porn convention going on. He used to be in the porn business, so he went over and talked his way in. He got completely drunk with other attendees, found himself the next morning lying in the street with money and ID gone. For the next two weeks he sat in front of slot machines dropping tokens exchanged for free coupons, drinking free drinks. Nights he hide himself in some out of the way corner of the casinos. Finally he'd had enough, called a friend to send him a ticket back to L.A. And then what? I asked. He was a musician? Yes, he'd made dozens of albums, they're all over the internet. What happened to his band? He had a band, didn't he? Yes, several, but like he had they all moved on. Where'd he move on to? Acting in, then making porno movies. It was good business. Then he went on to making movies. Making shorts. Then he made two full length features. What happened with them? Oh, that didn't matter. Why not? Had I seen the movie, 'The Producers'? A down and out producer of plays decides to raise the costs of a play many times over from many different people. All he had to do was see to it that the play was so bad it failed so the duplicate investors didn't ask for any return. Whenever he ran out of money, the rock 'n' roller said, he'd find someone to invest ten or twenty thousand. How long could did that go on? I ask. Years, he says. And then, when those years passed? He lived with a woman down in Culver City. How long? Ten years. Doing what? Sex, drugs, rock n roll. They went through a hundred thousand dollar inheritance she got from her aunt. And then? It was over. He wished I saved a little as a stake to get going again. Why was it over? Can't he contact her? What about his band mates, movie makers he worked with? No, he can't. He cheated them all. That's the way it went. Who sent him money for the ticket from Las Vegas? Can't he get more? No. You still have your guitar. Oh, that. He's had it only a few days. At a casino show he sneaked into at intermission and took the opportunity to run up on stage and grab the guitar the musician left behind. What's it worth? Only a couple hundred. He's cold, he said, And starving. He reaches over to the next table to grab a leftover pancake and swallow it down. He stands up, says goodbye to me, glances at Thomas, for the moment busy talking business with the rap singer and his girl at the table on the other side. Where's he going, I ask the rock n roller? To spend the night at the parking structure where it's warm.
- Myself, I would stake my life on the life of these characters having any meaning at all. What did your student say?
- 'Wow'. He asked me what I thought meeting and listening to these guys meant. I had no idea. But there was definitely a feeling, a mood.
- What mood?
- There was something, something suggestive in these characters opening up about without shame their lying and cheating. I'd been thinking for a while about our new President's shameless lying, wondering how he was getting away with it.
- He isn't. He gets caught all the time.
- Yet no one seems to care. Like the President, these two lie and cheat and are caught out time after time by friends and associates but somehow they are getting by on charm.
- I think you are right about the President. He even makes a joke of his lying. Unemployment he says is 25 percent. Or it's 50 percent. Or maybe even 60. The news media he says is producing fake news, and now today, he says, he has a new name for it, 'Very Fake News'. After his victory, hearing at a rally the joyous call to lock up his opponent, he says, smiling, that, they understand, was for before the election, now is a different story. The crowd roars. His supporters eat it up.
- And these are the very people who complain about political correctness, relativism, who express themselves as offended by the demand to treat people in every way of life equally. They say they are being called upon them to lie, to believe there is no fixed human nature, so no better or worse conduct for that nature. Indignant though they are at political correctness' demand they lie, they worship at the alter of their President's lies.
- Yes. And you know what else?
- What?
- They know he is lying and don't care. They like his lying. This sort of lying is not a false statement about the world they are called upon to accept. This is not lying about human nature. It is lying as a tool, creating a picture of the world not made to be imposed on themselves but on others. It is a salesman's lying, a tool used aiming at a goal, making use of language's infinite possibilities to make statements to build a picture of the world that suits a purpose.
- The president announced the other day he was moving into 'full sales' mode to sell his health care plan.
- You see. When the President lies, he is not making a claim that human nature is infinitely malleable. but painting a picture of the world that changes the world.
- But why do his supporters believe he is not lying to them too? After all, once in office he's filled his cabinet with the very "Washington Insiders" and bankers, dwellers of the swamp he promised to drain. He fulfills his promise to replace the previous president's health care law, but his new plan lowers taxes for the rich, not exactly in tune with his claim to be on the side of ordinary people.
- The President has kept certain promises, those that initiate what we've called fascist ritual.
- Identify foreigners as the enemy which if fought with violence our weakness will be gone and we will be born again in strength.
- Yes. The President as promised has moved to expel illegal immigrants, he has moved to withdraw from international trade deals. Why has he kept these promises when he's shown his willingness to break his other promises? Is it not because together with his supporters he is a participant himself in these rituals of rebirth? He's established a bond with his people, found security in the speech-making and campaign rallies, so much so after he was elected he held an additional campaign rally, supposedly the first in his four year distant battle for re-election. And now, what about where we started? Thomas and Little Man, the Rock 'n' Roll Pornographer Vagabond Thief. Is their secret like the President's, do they form deep, ritualistic bonds with all the openly lied to people brought into their pretend professions? Does that make more sense of them, round out their stories? With that question the essay concludes.

Further Reading:
Political Correctness