Child and Youth
MOMENTS WITH YOUTH
Reflecting and talking
(1960) Near the end of my youth, I hitchhike to New Orleans. My first ride is from a bathroom fixtures salesman; I see the brochures strewn across the back seat when I get in. Tired, he doesnít say much as we exit Milwaukee and head south and west.
He takes me to Beloit and leaves me off in the parking lot at a diner. Hungry, I go inside and sit at the counter.
"How old are you sonny?" the waitress asks after she serves me a meal of roast beef and mashed potatoes. Her nametag says, Lucile.
"Nineteen," I say adding a year to my age.
"Where you headed?"
"Thatís a long way from Wisconsin."
A trucker roars into the gravel parking lot stones spitting out behind the ten wheels. He sits next to me at the counter. "This boy is going south Frank," Lucile says.
"If you can wait until I get something in my stomach I can take you to southern Illinois," Frank says.
"Sure, thanks," I say.
Lucile gives me a free scoop of ice cream. "Youíll need a full stomach to get to New Orleans, sonny," she says.
Frank flirts with Lucile. Seems like they might have done it before. I listen quietly as they talk about his travel down from Eau Claire, where he lives. Heís hauling TV sets and refrigerators.
After he finishes eating, we roar out of the parking lot, Frank blasting his horn for Lucile. High in the cab the flat Illinois countryside looks like a huge baseball diamond with farmhouses and barns as dugouts.
"Why you going to New Orleans?" he asks.
"To hear the jazz."
"How long you staying?"
"As long as my money holds out."
"How much you got?"
"About one hundred bucks in travelerís checks."
"Thatís not a lot."
"Maybe Iíll get a job."
He tells me about his days in the Korean War. As he talks it seems like his best days are behind him.
"Good luck," he says as I get out and stand on the highway with my thumb out.
My next ride is from a heavyset man whose belly almost touches the steering wheel of his big Cadillac. He seems to be just roaming around the countryside. After several miles he says, "I took a sailor all the way to New Orleans a few weeks ago.
Iíll take you too if you play your cards right," and reaches over and puts his fingers in my pocket."
"No, thatís okay," I say as I jump out just before the next stop sign with my legs and suitcase trying to catch up to my body, just outside Cairo Illinois.
The next ride comes from a young man limping back home from a bad semester in college. He doesnít know how to tell his parents he flunked out. I feel sorry for him. He has a six-pack in the backseat. He asks me to give him a beer and tells me to take one for myself. We drink and twist and turn through the Kentucky Mountains. In Fulton I watch his taillights fade out of sight around a long turn and fall asleep with my thumb out and my back to the pole holding the stop sign.
I wake up with a cop holding me under each arm. They take me to jail and charge me with vagrancy even though I have one hundred bucks. The bench in the cell is hard. I dream Iím working on a chain gang. In the morning one cop drives me to the grocery store and has me cash fifty bucks of travelerís checks and give the cash to him.
"We donít like strangers around here, especially beatniks." He says when he drops me off at the edge of town. Itís the first time Iím called a beatnik. Iím just happy to be on the road again. After a couple more rides, Iím stranded midday for a couple hours in the middle of Mississippi with the hot, humid sun shining down and a ĎWatch out for Alligatorsí sign a few feet away. Slowly an old DeSoto approaches. Inside I can see a man with Harry Truman straw hat and the top of a little girlís head. He pulls to the side of the road the car almost rubbing against my body. I get in the backseat.
"Weíre just going down the road a bit to church," the father says as the little girl sits quietly beside him.
"Thatís good," I say.
"Have you found your savior?" he asks.
"I wasnít looking," I respond.
I wait for a long time in the afternoon sun. Finally another trucker takes me across the flood planes to New Orleans where I get a room in the French Quarter and a job in a hamburger parlor. It is a place unlike anywhere I have ever been. A foreign land where people stay up all night, and embrace their differences so that everything, including the food, seems to blend together to create culture where almost anything goes as long as it is done with respect for others and the way they make meaning of their lives. I meet all kinds of interesting characters in the hamburger parlor, and in the evening after work, I listen to some of the finest jazz in the world. One night I meet an older woman with dark curls in Preservation Hall. We hand her flask back and forth.
In the morning, with booze seeping from a black hole deep inside me, she stands alone on the balcony while I run through the moist French Quarter to St. Charles Boulevard. I run and run. Among the mansions word and image come together to create something at the edge of my consciousness, something important, something I canít put my finger on, something perhaps too beautiful or painful to touch just there beyond my reach.
"... a site of linguistic self-consciousness and a point on
the map of the modern world that may only be a projection of our desire to give
our knowledge a shape that is foreign to or other than it. Above all it is a
place that is named." I read Seamus Dean's explanation of Joyce's use of
language to name place in the introduction to Penguin Books 1993 edition of A
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
(2005) "You couldnít do that today," a young man in my youth work class says. Weíre talking while we wait for the rest of the class to arrive.
"Yeah, it wouldnít be safe. Things are much more dangerous today," another class member, a young Hispanic man, says.
"Are they really, or is it just that our fear has increased because of what we see in the media?" I ask.
"Maybe we are just more aware of the dangers. Maybe you wouldnít have started out if you knew what would happen to you back in the 1950ís?" A young white woman says.
"Maybe. But do you think things are better or worse for youth today than back then?"
"Worse," a middle aged black woman says.
"But crime rates are down, arenít they?"
"For who?" the black woman says.
"Well, thatís the question, isnít it?"
"Yes, statistics donít mean anything. It depends where you live, who you are, and what you experience."
"Good point, but canít we argue that youth today are more sensitive and accepting than ever before to differences. They certainly live in more integrated communities, and have more education and awareness about members of the opposite sex, and people from different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds."
"I suppose it could be better in some places, but again it depends where you live. In my neighborhood, racism and intolerance are worse than ever."
"Not in mine," an Asian man says. "I live an integrated neighborhood and we all get along pretty well."
"But you live on the East Side. People are better off there."
"So, are you saying class is an issue?" the Asian man asks the Black woman.
"Thatís part of itÖ But like in New Orleans I think it is mostly about race. Those people were poor, but the reason they wouldnít let them cross the bridge to safety was because they were blackÖ."
"But they were looting," a class member who has just arrived says.
"What would you do if you didnít have food or water?" another class member asks.
"But some were taking TV and electronic equipment."
"I heard whites and the police were too?"
(As the rest of the class arrives, the conversation continues)
Later, on my way home after class, I think about my trip to the New Orleans of my youth, how inclusive and accepting the French Quarter seemed, the music, the rich, totally unique culture, the limits I was able to test as I searched to find myself, and that wonderful and scary journey on the road.
There is a call out on the internet for youth workers to come down to New Orleans and help victims of Hurricane Katrina. Maybe they will find part of themselves there with youth amidst the jazz, floods, destroyed homes, and many social issues that have surfaced during the tragedy. If they do, it will be good youth work.