Triptychs – Chapter 7
The first day of school. Anytime; anywhere. In the basics, the fundamentals, it’s always the same; you know? The class schedule, the books, the not-quite-knowing where the classrooms are going to be, exactly . . .
And, fuck-me, how many First Days of School have I gone through, now? I mean, if you only count grade school, elementary, and middle and high school, this First Day of School of mine is number Lucky Thirteen. But my mom works, she’s always worked, so there was day care, then nursery school, and after that, kindergarten . . . And summer school, after that.
Too many First Day of School days; I’m sure of that much, anyway.
Which isn’t to say, that some things haven’t changed about the First Day of School, over time.
“ . . . two left lanes are blocked by a non-injury accident. On the Nimitz, traffic is still bumper-to-bumper southbound from Heggenberger Road, due to that overturned big-rig that was cleared to the side of the road about an hour ago. Traffic and weather brought to you by – ”
Like, driving myself to school, for instance. The radio’d come on when I started the truck, with the usual roar from the big engine; the dawn sky still smoggy-red, the air dead-still and warm. September in Berkeley.
I buckled my seat belt; then I grinned to myself, as I took my Oakland A’s baseball cap from the seat next to me, and I carefully put it on.
I mean, really. Here I was, driving a beat-up pickup truck to my First Day of School at Hayward State. On 580, the East Bay’s working-class, commuter freeway, or one of them, anyway. I even had my lunch in one of my dad’s old lunchboxes, just to save money. Is there any WAY I could do it, without wearing an Oakland A’s cap? Any way at all?
“Westbound Highway 92 is backed up from the Incline all the way to Jackson Street; if you can take the Dumbarton Bridge instead, you might want to consider it . . . ”
Even though it was early, I wasn’t exactly alone on the road; pretty far from it. Traffic was worse, lots worse, than my last trip to school with Cole, last week. And we were moving slow; when we were moving at all.
I had a lot of time to look at the other cars, the other drivers. And to notice how – different . . . they looked; compared to people in Berkeley, compared to what I was used to. And in a weird way – it felt good; it felt real.
I guess that needs some explanation.
See – I grew up in Berkeley, like I’ve said; on and around the campus, pretty much surrounded by everything Berkeley and the University of California system stand for. Meaning; a lot of academics, a lot of students, lots of high-priced houses, and high-priced cars parked on leafy, quiet, narrow, one-way streets . . .
Meaning, in the end, I grew up around an awful lot of privilege. An awful lot of money.
A LOT of money.
It’s really easy to see on the campus itself; Cole and I used to spend time just watching the students, especially the freshmen. It was like a ritual, every September, we’d stake out a place on campus, one with a good view, and we’d just point them out to each other, and snark at them, and give them imaginary names like Buffy and Winthrop and Wellington . . .
Well, yeah, okay; we were younger, then, remember.
But the thing is, we were right; UC Berkeley students really WERE different from us, from the townies; a lot of them, anyway. The way they dressed, the way they talked, the dazzling, straight white teeth, the perfect hair . . . When you’re young, as young as we were then, anyway, it’s so easy to spot the differences.
And of course, it makes perfect sense. Berkeley isn’t an expensive school, as prestigious schools go – or at least, it didn’t used to be, tuition’s more than doubled, since I started high school, and it’s –
Sorry. Off-topic, again.
No, Cal Berkeley’s not all that expensive, as schools go, but you need to have really good grades to get in; and you need more than just good grades, you need a Curriculum Vitae, you need a life resume, accomplishments to show on your application, on your personal statement, in your recommendations.
Money buys all that.
Money buys good schools, and tutors, and the time after school to do unpaid volunteer work, the time to organize Pet Rescue Missions, or Ecology Outreach Initiatives . . .
And the money shows, on campus. Especially with incoming freshmen, who haven’t learned, yet, about hiding their differences, about being a little more modest, about fitting in a little better. Yeah; the rich really are different from you and me.
I don’t come from money. Far from it.
And because of that – I’ve never really fit in, myself, in Berkeley. At least, that’s how I feel, on some level, that’s how I’ve always felt, right or wrong; especially when it comes to the campus, to UC Berkeley itself. It’s what I feel, and I can’t help it.
Not that I’m ashamed of my background – Fuck, no!
I said before, I’m a McCarthy; that’s my mom’s family, and it’s my name, and it’s the only part of my heritage that counts. My mom and dad were kind of temporarily on the outs when I was born, and they never did get married, so I wound up with my mom’s last name, and believe me, I’m grateful.
No; I’m really, really glad I’m a McCarthy. A San Francisco Bay Area McCarthy.
“ . . . for today is clear and warmer, with highs in the low eighties at the coast, ranging to the low hundreds inland. Looking at the five-day forecast, expect patchy low fog and cooler temperatures by Sunday, and then another warming trend building up towards mid-week. Traffic and weather together every ten minutes on your news radio station, K – ”
Like I’ve said, we have a history, here. And it goes back a long way.
And it’s wrapped up in the ILWU; the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, the union that all the port workers in the whole western half of the United States belong to; yep, I’m a blue-collar boy, born and bred, through and through, and I’m fucking proud of it. And I’m fucking proud of the ILWU, I really am.
Partly because my three uncles, my mom’s brothers, belong to it; my Uncle Dennis, here at the Port of Oakland, and my Uncle Ryan and Uncle Patrick, at the Port of Stockton, up the San Joaquin River from San Francisco Bay.
It’s my Uncle Dennis who got me my summer job at the Port of Oakland; and even though it was just an indoor, clerical-type job, it came with a temporary Union card, which I still keep in my wallet, even though it’s out of date.
Yeah; I’m proud of my uncles, and the hard, and sometimes-dangerous work they do, and all they put into it.
But I’m also proud of the union, the ILWU, for its own sake; for what it is, what it stands for – decent wages, decent working conditions, good, progressive causes, being against the war – did you know, the ILWU shut down West Coast ports for half a day this year, to protest the war in Iraq? Did you even hear about that - ?
And all of it, all the progressivism, the good works, the decency – it all really comes from the ILWU’s history. And I’m really, really fucking proud of their history.
Okay. Short version.
In 1934, the shipping lines in San Francisco ran the docks, controlled the docks, and everyone who worked on the docks. Controlled, as in brutally; the work was brutal, the control was brutal, and anybody who raised up a head got it beaten down real fast.
Literally. Beaten down. I don’t think people today know what things were like, back then; back before the really big labor unions got formed, before they were a power of their own.
Trust me. Things were bad; there was a lot of violence, a LOT of it, and it was mostly one-sided; big companies could afford to hire the goons.
Think about that, the next time you heard about what a genius, what an upstanding citizen Henry Ford was.
In 1934, like I said, the shipping companies ran the docks in San Francisco, and picked who worked and who didn’t, on a day-by-day basis, and even the dockworkers who got picked didn’t last long, because the work and the low pay broke their bodies down real damn fast.
And then the ILWU got formed –
Well, okay; it was the ILA back then, the International Longshoreman’s Association; but it’s the same thing, the same organization. It got formed, and then it called a strike to try to get halfway-decent working conditions for the dockworkers –
And the shipping companies went apeshit. They really did; they brought in trainloads of goons, armed private security men, the Blackwater of that day. And they started bashing heads. A lot of heads.
One of those heads belonged to my great-grandfather Patrick. He’s the one my Uncle Patrick is named after, and he got beat up pretty bad, he had broken bones and a bad concussion.
Can you see why I take some of this a little personally?
I never got to talk to my Great-Grandfather Patrick directly, he died before I was born. But my mom made him tell his story, about the strike, when she was young – she said he didn’t want to talk about it, but she made him – and she wrote it down, and I’ve read it, time after time after time. It’s chilling, it really is; seeing the words, hearing what things were really like, then . . . especially when it comes to the bloodshed. And the bodies.
Yeah; there were three people killed, strikers, the same day my great-grandfather got beaten up.
That was a big thing.
That was a REALLY big thing; as it turned out.
Not so much because of the body count, or the list of the injured – there were bloodier strikes, with lots more sheer horror, back East. Three dead in Detroit would be barely noticeable.
No; San Francisco is what made it such a big thing. San Francisco’s reaction to the three dead strikers, to be more exact.
Forty thousand people lined Market Street to watch the funeral procession, for the three dead strikers; that’s right, forty thousand. And after that, San Francisco just, shut down.
It was a General Strike, called by the unions – ALL of them – to protest the killings. But it wasn’t the unions that shut down the city; it was the citizens of San Francisco, the grocery store owners, the bakers, the butchers, the bar owners, the teachers – almost EVERYBODY, union or not, just walked off the job, shut down their businesses, in sympathy for the dead strikers.
Nothing like it had ever happened before, in the U.S.
Nothing like it has ever happened, since.
Can you begin to see why I love San Francisco so much, even though I grew up in Berkeley?
You might think you could imagine what happened next. But you’d probably be wrong. You’d probably underestimate the reaction.
The government – the California State government: U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt stayed out of it – the state government of California went absolutely batshit crazy.
As in, activating the National Guard, and setting it onto the streets of San Francisco. Complete with soldiers with bayonets, fixed on their rifles –
Which they used. National Guard troops, bayoneting US citizens in the streets of San Francisco, during a labor dispute; a strike. Can you believe that? Troops using bayonets on unarmed strikers? It happened. A few times, anyway; and not fatally. But it happened.
But it wasn’t just troops with fixed bayonets on their rifles. There were tanks, too, honest-to-god, 1930’s tanks, rolling down Market Street – the same street used for the funeral procession – in a show of force. Tanks, in the streets of what was then the second-biggest city west of the Mississippi.
Yeah. I know. It’s hard to believe; hard to put yourself back in the frame, back in the day.
The end of the whole thing, the whole strike, was messy; it dragged on and on, and for a long time, it looked like the shipping line owners won.
I mean, really. It was the worst part of the Depression; a major, major American city had shut itself completely down, in sympathy with a major strike; the outrage over the strikebreakers’ tactics, and the deaths, reverberated across the country.
The shipping line owners weren’t blind. Little by little, issue by issue, they began to – give; they began to make concessions.
Over time, over enough time, it became clear; the unions had won, in the end. When it counted; where it counted. Thanks, mostly, to the people of San Francisco.
And my great-grandfather was a part of it all. And my uncles are part of it, still. Can you see why I’m so fucking proud to be a McCarthy - ?
“ . . . clear and warmer, with highs in the low eighties at the coast, ranging to the low – ”
I really didn’t need to hear the weather again, for the fourth time; and I was already off of 580, I didn’t need the traffic reports any more.
And I didn’t even need to go on distracting myself, by going over my family history in my head. Pretty soon I’d be parked, and on the campus, and I’d be way too busy to be thinking about Erik every other minute, remembering Saturday, wondering how I felt about him, wondering how HE felt about ME . . .
* * *
“All right, let’s just move our chairs around into a circle . . . there; there, that’s good.”
My first day at college – my whole first year at college – was going to have one, big unusual thing in common with high school.
“Let me introduce myself; my name’s Cynthia, and I’m one of the three facilitators for your Learning Community.” Cynthia was a middle-aged Asian American woman with a kind-of- motherly, worn face, and a warm smile.
“The goal today is for us to get to know each other a little better, and that’s why we’ve broken down into these smaller groups. Today we’re going to take turns telling the group a little bit about ourselves; then next session, we’ll mingle with the other groups, and do it all over again.” Another flash of her warm smile. “We’ve found that it’s important for people in Learning Communities to get acquainted early on. The earlier you start to get to know each other, the earlier you’ll start to give support to each other.”
Okay, so it wasn’t exactly homeroom.
At CSUEB, they have these things called Learning Communities. If you’re a freshman, you get lumped into groups of thirty or so, based on – I don’t know; some pretty general shit – and you spend time, scheduled time, studying with that group, your whole first year. The idea is, you’re supposed to help the other people in your group who need help; and they say it works, really well.
It’s a Really Important Thing, at Hayward State. They take it seriously.
I figured it was, like, a total waste of time; plus, I really hate talking about myself, in front of a group of people. But, what can you do?
“So, why don’t we get started? First, a little bit more about myself; I’ve been at CSUEB for twelve years, now, my area of specialization is Educational Theory . . . ”
Of course, I tuned out, pretty fast; it was more interesting looking at my classmates. I’d be spending lots of time with them, after all.
And it really WAS interesting; we were a pretty diverse group, compared to students at Cal.
As in, for starters, colorful. Students at U.C. Berkeley tend to be white or Asian, with an emphasis on Asian – to be honest. For whatever reason.
But this little circle of nine people . . . well. A couple of African American girls, sitting together; obviously friends. Then an older guy in a bleach-stained T-shirt, who looked Hispanic, maybe, or Filipino; he also looked like he could be one of my dad’s co-workers, back when my dad actually worked. In construction, I mean; god knew what my dad was doing, these days . . .
“Let’s start going around the circle . . . starting on my right.” A warm smile at one of the African American girls. “Tell us a little bit about yourself?”
“Hi, my name is Kat, which is short for Katrina; but I don’t go by that much, anymore – ” She said it with a quick, ironic shrug.
A little ripple of dry laughter; and I went on looking at my classmates.
Past the grown-up construction-worker guy, was a gringo boy who reminded me, a little, of Erik; he had muscles, and broad shoulders, and Erick’s short hair, and something about his posture in the chair said that he didn’t like sitting still, that he’d really rather be moving . . . I imagined him, moving; on a green football field, maybe . . .
Yeah. Me doing the framing, as usual. Framing, in my head; judging the angles, the lighting, the scenes.
But, no, no; he was cute, even if he was younger than Erik, and his hair was more brown than black . . . He was definitely cute, but he didn’t have that something special, I thought, that something important; that Hollywood-special edge that Erik has, the presence –
As if I could tell, from a couple of short glances.
Yeah. Since Saturday night, maybe I’m obsessing on Erik WAY too much. You think?
“Thank you, Kat,” Cynthia was saying. I watched her turn her encouraging smile on the other girl, the one sitting next to me. “And, why don’t you go ahead, and introduce yourself - ?”
“Hi,” went the girl, and she looked down, shyly. She was really beautiful; lots of braids, with really pretty beads worked into them, and her face was sweet and open. “I’m Michelle, and my major’s going to be Biological Sciences, and I’m going to be a nurse . . . ” She was saying it in a kind of rhythmic, sing-song way, and I could so easily imagine her younger, as a little girl, rocking back and forth as she talked . . .
So to hide my grin – my sympathetic grin – I went back to checking out my Learning Community-mates. On to the next guy, on the other side of the Not-Erik guy, and –
If you’re a gay boy, you’ve been on the receiving end of looks from other gay boys, right? Looks, as in, Looks; full in the eyes, intense, hormone-driven. Hungry. Looks, as in, the boy on the other end really wants to dive into your soul, wants to, like, have you.
Maybe you’ve given a few looks like that, yourself. I know I have. I think we all have.
When it happens, it’s unmistakable.
I was getting That Look, right then, from the boy sitting next to the Not-Erik guy, I’d swear it; a quick, piercing, intense flash of his eyes, a beat too long to be an accident; then his head went down, and the bill of the baseball cap he was wearing covered his eyes, and I looked down myself, and I covered my grin with my hand.
Oh, thank god, was all I could think. At least I wasn’t going to be the only queer boy in our Learning Community.
And, yeah, I was also feeling – well, kind of flattered, actually; it’s always nice to get looks like that, when they’re not from old pervs – and, I was glad that I wasn’t alone –
And, at the same time, I confess – I was hoping this was going to be a funny-enough story to share with Cole. I really was. Warped, isn’t it? But that’s just part of how my mind works.
“And I’m really interested in physical therapy,” Michelle was saying, still in her shy voice . . .
I glanced back at the boy who’d given me The Look.
He was carefully facing a little away, as if he was really interested in what was going on outside the window, and it was such a giveaway, ‘I wasn’t really looking, honest!’, and I figured I’d busted him, for sure.
He was young looking; I could tell that much, anyway, he looked younger than me, and thin – not that I can talk, when it comes to ‘thin’ – and the hair that stuck out from under his baseball cap was longish, and kind of curly-wavy black, and I guessed he was kind of cute. Not my type, not Erik-ish, at all; but kind of cute.
Michelle was wrapping up.
“ . . . and my boyfriend’s name is Darien,” she was saying; and if possible, her voice had gotten even shyer, and younger-sounding, and adorable. “And he’s really nice . . . ” Her head went down, and Kat was hugging her around the shoulders, and there was another little murmur of dry laughter from around the circle, and it was clear that she was done; she had a big, embarrassed smile all over her open face.
“Thank you, Michelle,” from Cynthia; with just a little extra motherly warmth, I thought. Then her eyes were on me, questioning; she really didn’t have to say anything, and I grinned back at her.
“Okay. Yeah, hi,” I started, turning to face the rest of the circle. “I’m Trevor, and I live in Berkeley, I grew up there, actually, so of course that’s how I wound up here.” I smiled, ironically. “And, my major’s going to be Communications, but I’m going to work in independent film . . . ”
And naturally, since I was the one talking, I got to glance at the other people in the circle, a little bit. So naturally, I just happened to glance at the curly-haired kid.
Oh-oh. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him whispering something to the Not-Erik Guy.
Hmmmm. I was sure the Not-Erik Guy was straight; I mean, it was really obvious. Hm.
“ . . . so, don’t be too surprised if I show up with a video camera at some point, and try to get you on tape; I’ll be in the video studio here as soon as they’ll let me.”
Another glance around, at Kat looking interested, and Michelle looking slightly horrified –
And the curly-black-haired kid was, oddly, looking right at the Oakland A’s cap I’d left parked on the desk in front of me. Looking right at it; then, a quick look up at me, that I barely caught, but I thought it was maybe kind of – questioning, somehow; then, straight back at the A’s cap . . .
Him, still wearing that baseball cap of his own, with a logo I didn’t recognize – not that I would, really, I don’t exactly follow baseball.
Hmmm. Maybe I’d been off; maybe I was going to be the only queer boy in the group, after all.
“ . . . and, that’s about it.” I started to lean back; then a quick thought hit me, and I could feel myself start to grin, really wide, and I tried to damp it down, to keep a straight face. “Oh . . . and my boyfriend’s name is Erik, and he’s really nice, too.” I gave it a pretend-pause, for effect. “Except I’m not totally sure that he’s my boyfriend. Or that I really WANT him to be my boyfriend . . . he’s not exactly around, all that much. But he IS hot.”
The biggest laugh so far, as I settled back in my chair. Michelle was looking embarrassed; Kat was smiling at me, openly, and when I glanced over, the curly-black-haired boy –
The curly-black-haired boy’s head was WAY down, totally hiding his face behind the bill of his cap. His friend, the Not-Erik Guy, was smiling a little, and already looking expectantly at the guy to my right; no obvious recognition, no psycho-drama, there.
Okay. So outing myself like that was an impulse; but it was a good impulse, and I’m glad I did it, and it didn’t have anything to do with the not-Erik guy or his friend with the baseball cap.
It was about the freedom of being out. The sheer, fucking, luxury of being out, of not needing to pretend, to anybody.
Not that I’ve ever exactly been IN, except to my parents – to all our parents. Duh. Of course.
But except for that, I’ve been out.
I don’t even remember how it all worked out at school, just that I followed Cole’s lead, and we kind of goofed off of each other . . . and after that, we were all sort of the Gay Mafia of our high school, me, Cole, Jason, a couple of other guys . . .
And Erik was always kind of around, too; that helped. I mean, mostly it was all about growing up in Berkeley, where being gay or bi, Just Isn’t An Issue. But one of us having a big, muscular, masculine, gay older brother in the picture didn’t hurt at all . . .
So I was out at school, and that was great. Then I got the summer job at the Port of Oakland, and I got pretty close to some people before they knew I was queer – and I’m not exactly obvious or anything; come to think of it, neither is Cole. Or Jeremy. Or –
Getting past the hump of letting people at work know about me, was – weird.
It was even weirder than watching people deal with my scar. Kind of similar, actually; but weirder. Creepy, actually. There were some really, off, reactions
So I was glad to get it over with early, here; with this group of people I was going to spend so much time with.
And of course, I’d started something.
“ . . . leaning towards environmental tech work, you know, dealing with oil spills, toxic waste cleanups, that sort of thing; but, we’ll see.” From Daniel, the guy next to me, a taller, blond kid with straight hair and high cheekbones. “And . . . oh,” he went on, after an ironic, staged pause; and he looked down a little theatrically. I could already tell, he was a little bit of a smartass. “My boyfriend’s name is Beth, and,” another short pause – “well, she’s actually a girl.” Eyes still down, playing embarrassed. “But she’s really nice, anyway . . . ”
More laughter, still. I grinned over at Daniel, totally delighted; he gave me a kind of apologetic smile back, and I figured I’d have to get to know him better.
And when I glanced over at the black-haired, baseball-cap boy again, his head was back down; his face behind the bill of his cap. Again.