The Suburbs of Babylon Chapter 12

Happy Friday, one and all. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting sick of wearing a mask. A decade ago, if you’d have told me that in 2020 the entire world would hold it’s breath for a whole year, I’d’ve said you were looney. But here we all are, in the same global asylum, run by the craziest and stupidest among us. So let’s take a few minutes to harken back to a virus-free era—namely my late 20s, when I was still in Los Angeles, and when I penned my uninspired novel, The Suburbs of Babylon. Here’s the next chapter:

“Chapter Twelve

Great white stretches of canvas signed by a Godless name;

strange bright colors of madness only a fool would frame.—Tears for Fears


Let me preface this tirade by saying that the cost of living in Los Angeles is obscene.  A one-bedroom condo that in Kansas would cost fifty grand will run you a hundred and fifty in L.A.  And a four-bedroom house going for 250,000 in Michigan will set you back over half a million here.  So even with a decent job, it’s a struggle just to stay afloat.  And as a substitute teacher working three days a week (if I’m lucky) at two hundred bucks a day, it’s only a matter of time before I’m in the poorhouse.  But like I’ve said before, I lack the inclination and/or facilitation to find something else, so for now things will remain as they are.

I’ve discovered something while teaching children—something of a Litmus test for future success.  It’s not in their ability to read or the speed with which they calculate a math problem.  It is an activity that, when children engage in it, an astute person can observe their behavior and actually predict who will prosper in life and who will fail.  That activity?  Dodge ball.

The game is simple enough.  Don’t get hit by the ball, or better yet, catch the ball as it is thrown at you.  Herein lies the crucial element.  If a child is too afraid to try and catch the ball, or fears even the possibility of being hit, that trepidation translates directly to an overall weakness in the child’s life, and vice versa.  Students who are products of divorce, or overprotective parents, children who’ve been bullied or who have experienced failure either academically or socially, are prone to this fear of the dodge ball. Conversely, successful children, confident children, loved children often display the courage and effort to play the game well.

What I have found inspiring is watching over the course of a week or a day the transformation of a feeble, fearful child into a dodge ball maniac.  This usually happens after he has been hit a few times, shed some tears, and realized that, not only did the world not come to an end, but id didn’t even really hurt that bad.  Then, the child allows himself to feel the aggression and inner drive that all successful people and dodge ball players must feel—emotions they might never have experienced before—and finds out it feels good.  Then he throws someone out for the first time, feels the rush, and fully commits to the game, its triumphs and its pain.

It’s a metaphor for life.  I’ve seen confidence on the dodge ball court that in turn inspired success in the classroom.  I’ve also seen children who never found the courage to try at the game, and it was not hard to predict that the world would eventually trample them underfoot.

Sometimes the most significant truth will reveal itself in the simplest of ways.

*    *    *

I’ve been painting more lately.  It’s a welcome salve for my shredded mind, since while the brush is in hand, my brain all but shuts down.  It’s like a drug that way.  The color hits the canvas, I sort of go to sleep for a few hours, and when I come around again, my back is aching, my arm is shaking, and before me is a snapshot from my subconscious.  It’s exhilarating.  Over the last year, my pain-imposed exile from the world has been a catalyst for numerous works that now cover the walls and lean against furniture all over my hotel room.  No one lays eyes on them but me.  I sometimes think of the pear-shaped man and others from the Guest Home, and wonder to myself if I have become one of them—the outcasts.  I wonder if they would let me move in one day, paintings and all.  I could share them with the pear-shaped man, and he could share his photos with me, and then at least there would be one other person in the world who had witnessed our art—one other person who could attest to our existence, he and I.

I don’t know what I’ll do when I run out of room to store them.  My whole life is like that, though.  I keep amassing pain, memories, failures, journeys to nearby places.  Sooner or later they’ll have to run out—I’ll have gone everywhere there is to go (within 300 miles), painted all that is in my head, filled up my life with heartache—and then what?  Confidentially, I think I always thought I’d die before anything reached its capacity.  That’s logical.  I figure I’ve got about six more paintings, a half-dozen more trips, or one more failure.  I’m all out of heartbreaks.  It can’t happen again.

I’m working on an oil-on-canvas right now.  Usually I can finish a work in one or two days, but this one’s been going on for a week.  It’s enormous.  It’s an abstract—a series of black and blue squares laid one over one another, with one in the center by itself.  Like an aerial view of a Mayan pyramid.  I’m sure it has something to say, I just don’t know what it is.  Maybe that all things come together for one final point, or one origination gives birth to everything else.  Whatever, I just know it looks cool.

Someday when I die, there might not be anyone grieving for me.  There might not be a funeral.  But there will be this record, and a series of paintings wrought from anguish—a heart and soul captured in smears of color.  Dreams and nightmares.  At least that’s something.

*    *    *

This week I subbed three days for a third grade class in Encino.  The first day, a boy named Albert got under his desk and took his shoes off.  He refused to come out, so I let him sit there till recess.  I asked the teacher next door about him.  Apparently his mother is a prostitute and a drug addict.  She brings her tricks to the apartment, and Albert has witnessed her peddling her wares.  No one knows who his father is, not even his mother.  He can’t read or understand simple math, and he tends to cry often.  Oh, and he has an ulcer.  This kid is eight.  After lunch, we played trivia quiz.  Boys against girls (even though it’s against the rules to gender-segregate).  I was sure to only give Albert questions that had nothing to do with school.  He did alright.  I asked him something about Scooby-Doo and he actually smiled.

The second day, I had the misfortune of meeting his mother.  She came in sniffing and shaking, a cigarette dangling from her bottom lip.  She looked like she hadn’t showered or slept in days.  She wanted some extra work for Albert, said they might have to go to visit his grandma and he’d be out a few days.  The next day, Albert was absent.  Word got around the office fast, and by lunch the teacher next to me got the scoop.

The woman’s landlord reported her to the cops for whoring out of her apartment, and she skipped town so Child Services wouldn’t take Albert away from her.  What amazed me was, none of the teachers seemed fazed by the news.  Stuff like that is commonplace, I guess.  It made me shudder.  Why are kids in this country so unprotected?  There’s no excuse.  I mean, for the last thirty years society has been taught to be self-serving and lazy, so it’s no wonder parents don’t sacrifice for their children.  Their parents were probably just as irresponsible, so how can they be expected to know what good parenting even looks like?  That’s what the moral relativism of the 60’s, the self-absorption of the 70’s, and the greed of the 80’s gave us—a generation of retarded parents.  But with all the money we have, there should be some system in place to help kids whose parents don’t give a rat’s ass.  The orphanage where I spent my childhood was shabby, run-down, under-funded, and kids with serious problems went largely ignored.  But there were at least one or two loving adults who gave us a reason to think we could succeed.  Who does Albert have to turn to?  Will he find something or someone to keep him from shooting up a post office someday?  I sure couldn’t say.  He’s in Arizona.

*    *    *

Thinking about Albert brought back a memory from the orphanage.  It was something I had completely erased from my consciousness, I think for good reason.

In the first few years that I was there, I fell into a routine.  It was almost obsessive-compulsive in its repetition, and I think it manifested out of a need for security.  Friends were never around long—they were always being adopted and carted away.  Adults tried not to get too close, so as not to create attachments that would later confuse a child or interfere with their acclamation to new parents.  Years later, after it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be adopted, some of the teachers and staff dared to get closer, although by then it was too late.  But early on, I was desperate to find some kind of security, and I found it in routine habits.

One routine was to spend every day between 9 and noon outside, in one of two places.  There was something about the way the morning sunlight angled through the leaves of the trees around the playground that gave me comfort.  I usually spent the first half of the morning in the sandbox, making roads and tunnels—an intricate series of routes and getaways.  The second half of the morning I would climb a tree in the back corner of the yard, where there was a perfect niche of a hiding place where the staff couldn’t see, yet where I could look over the wall to the street beyond.  I used to watch cars (my favorite was the Corvette Stingray) and people passing by.  I would try to imagine where they were all coming from and where they were going.   I dreamed up visions of big beautiful homes, happy children with swimming pools and expensive toys, of family vacations, trips to the store, little league, Disneyland.  I imagined moms in kitchens making sandwiches for their sons.  All I knew was, I wanted to be going where each and every person that passed was going.  I didn’t care where it was.

One particular day, my routine was thrown off by a new boy who had made a beeline for the sandbox and took my spot before I could get there.  For a moment I thought about alerting him to his mistake, but then I remembered how he had cried the day before when he was dropped off.  I also noticed a fading black eye, and a bruise in the shape of fingers on his arm.  I decided to let him be, and spent the first half of the morning in the tree.  What I didn’t know was, the staff also had a routine.  For the first half of the morning, an overzealous, controlling, bitter old woman named Mrs. McEntyre watched the yard while the younger, more easy-going staffers took their break.  This had never mattered to me, because Mrs. McEntyre was too lazy to walk over to the sandbox, where I usually was, so I never even noticed her, let alone had to contend with her.  But today I was not in the sandbox.  I was at my tree, standing below it, trying to look nonchalant, watching Mrs. McEntyre watching me with a scrutiny that resembled a Klansman watching an NAACP parade.

I tried to look innocent.  I stared up at the sky, I idly kicked the grass the way I imagined a boy with no worries might.  I leaned against the tree, waiting.  Finally, she became distracted by two girls fighting over a jump rope, and I saw my chance.  As she began pointing her finger in one little girl’s face, I stepped behind the tree, and with one swift movement my hands and legs were wrapped around the first branch, and a second later I was crouched in my hidden perch, invisible to the rest of the world.  What I failed to realize was that, for an adult, out of sight does not mean out of mind.  When Mrs. McEntyre looked over in my direction and saw that I had vanished, she promptly heaved her enormous frame from the bench where she was sitting and waddled over to where I had been leaning against the tree.  I was lost in my imagination, staring over the wall and down the road, and was oblivious, until I heard the crunch of feet on the dirt below.  I looked down at the top of Mrs. McEntyre’s head as she circled the tree, scanned the yard, and scratched behind her ear, trying to surmise where I’d gone off to.  Then the idea came to her, and she looked up, right into my eyes.  I was mortified.  At first there was only an expression of blank surprise, and then her face turned red and her large brow wrinkled into a frown.  I leaped from the tree and was down before she could begin shouting.  She grabbed me by the ear and hauled me into the director’s office where she threatened to spank me with a gigantic red paddle that was kept mounted on the wall in plain view as a silent reminder.

In the end, nothing happened to me.  The janitor eventually cut off the branches of the tree that had kept me hidden, and I lost my perch forever, but that’s not my purpose for telling this story.  Because my routine had been thrown off, I lost my favorite hiding place.  But Mrs. McEntyre had also left the yard unattended, and in the time she was dragging me into the office, a stranger had somehow come into the yard and carried off the boy who had taken my spot in the sandbox.  He was never seen again.

Now over the years, most people had come to believe that his father, the one who had abused and lost him, was the one who came in and got him that day.  Which would have made sense.  But the police arrested him, and they never found any proof that he really did it.  Which means that it could have been a random predator.  Which means that, if I had followed my routine, it would have been me in that sandbox.  I would have been taken.  In truth, I should have been taken, and it was only a series of random events, all my fault, that spared me and sealed the fate of the other boy.  When I thought of Albert in Arizona, I thought of the boy in the sandbox, and it chilled me to the bone.”

I had forgotten about Albert until re-reading this yesterday. I wish more of this awful novel were fiction. But we live in a cruel world. I love Thailand, but I know that children suffer here, too. And it pains me to think about. If you happen to see a child in need this week, reach out. Because you might be the only one who does. And cheers to everyone who’s good to their kids—thankfully it’s a cultural norm in Thailand to dote on the little ones.