I was just out having a smoke when I got blindsided by something I did when I was 8 or 9 years old. We were living in Metairie then, and my mom had gotten chummy with a bunch of her coworkers in Tenneco’s marketing department, so one night a bunch of us went bowling in New Orleans. Everyone in our party was gathered around the two or three lanes we’d rented, and I’d moved over by myself to the first empty lane next to them and started fooling around with the overhead projector, scribbling my name and drawing on it and what-not. There were two black couples a couple of lanes down from me, and I remember looking at them and then looking down at the little lit-up panel in front of me and then very deliberately scrawling on it, in big block letters, the single word NIGGER. I never saw my mother move faster than she did when she came sliding around the bench and started running over to those people. She talked to them for three or four minutes while I sat at my table, swinging my legs and pretty much oblivious to what I’d done; I couldn’t hear what they were saying but I can still see them huddled together, and in my memory anyway the couples were a lot cooler and more understanding than we had any right to expect. (Though God knows they probably weren’t too eager to get into a fight with 10-15 whites in a New Orleans bowling alley.) Afterward it was one of those rare times when Mom didn’t blow her stack, but instead did the right thing the right way, calmly explaining to me why it was wrong and so on, even when she still had to go back and apologize to her friends for my nearly starting a brawl.
Naturally there were a lot of mitigating circumstances at play here, but none of that made any difference over the years because that’s not the way shame works. I have no idea how many of the other people who were there that night remember what I did, but I sure as hell couldn’t forget it, even if it is just one of those stray, stupid memories that comes to mind whenever it feels like fucking with me. When it does come, though, it’s never a good thing—reliving it always ends with me shuddering with mortification. When I was about 13 I started huffing a toluene-based aerosol product called Plasti-Coat, and the various hallucinations had a through-line that repeated themselves note for note, like the refrain of a song, and each time they’d come to me I’d experience the identical physical and mental reactions to each point of the progression. There was one train of thought—I don’t know what else to call these things—where I was in outer space and connected to Earth only by a thick green tentacle that protruded from my navel and extended to some unseen point down here, and this tentacle was like a whip. Something on the Earth end would pull on it, stretching it tight, and then the tension would suddenly be released, so that it was like a rubber-band unsnapping and I’d go flying backwards into space—alone, and in the other direction from home. Another mental string only revolved around the image of three strips of semi-rigid metal, like the tongues of a Jew’s harp, arranged with two on the left side and the third extending from the right in between them; in this little playlet (which never varied), the middle strip would bend downwards until it bent the lower one far enough to snap under it, then it would suddenly snap back upwards, pushing past both of the left-hand strips all the way to the top of them. This all occurred with a certain rhythm that never varied, and each time it happened—could be five times a session, could be none at all—the moment just before the final release would build and build, and when the single strip made its final snap through the other two, always with the same palpable release of energy, it was accompanied by a cracking noise followed by a cold, piercing whistle, and a current of pain that seemed like an extension of the whistle would shoot down my spine, making my backbone feel like it was snapping in two. But at least one of these hallucinatory progressions had a discernible narrative line. I didn’t experience it often, and the details are beyond hazy today, but it was like a story from Creepy magazine, and basically consisted of a series of events at the end of which I’d stand exposed to the world as…an incorrigible racist. (Yeah…13 years old. Go figure.) At the end of it I’d be flooded with a feeling of irreversible moral infection and only the merest trace of relief that none if it was true.
Of course, every dog has those moments he’d give anything to get back. But the striking thing about that bowling alley episode is that my reaction to the unprovoked memory of it today is still so consistent with the helplessness and self-loathing I felt back when I was huffing Plasti-Coat behind the carport on Holly Street—and that’s even with full awareness of the disconnect between my actual responsibility for that night and the sharpness of my regret. “Oh, the THINKS you can think!” as a wise man once put it, but for once not even the great Mr. Geisel may have known just what it was he was saying.