Friday, June 13, 2008

An Other James

[On the occasion of my 40th year High School Reunion, which I will be attending by phone].

I was at a party once, attended mostly by SF fan types, and the subject of name changes came up. I asked the group how many of us had changed our “go by” names in some significant way since we were young. It turned out that something like ¾ of us had.

My own change was fairly major; I was “Pete” in high school, then “James” or “Jim” in college. The former had made sense to distinguish me from my Dad (I’m actually a “Junior”), but I’d never cared for Pete as a name, and college is all about reinvention. I eventually had to settle for "Jim" because so many people just automatically shorten the name unless you're a bore about it. I did, however, draw the line at "Jimmy." There is one person in the world who is allowed to call me Jimmy, and he goes by Jimmy, and he's older than I am, so I can't/won't object.

So the guy I knew as James in high school, and who still goes by that name, knew me as Pete. He didn’t like me, and vice versa. I was what was known then as a “brain,” while he was a “hood,” short for “hoodlum” back then. (Now it's short for "neighborhood" and comes from African American slang). Truth to tell, in our white bread suburb, before drugs, the counter-culture, and the flood of semi-automatic weapons, “hoods” were usually pretty tame.

Which isn’t to say that they didn’t make trouble, nor that I had no trouble with them. Indeed, three times a week, just as school was letting out, I’d be down on the corner waiting for the bus that took me to the downtown YMCA, where I was a lifeguard and sometimes gym class leader for younger kids. But there on the bus bench, I was a target. Sometimes the rowdies would just yell at me; sometimes they would throw things like wadded up paper, empty cartons, or occasionally, half empty soda cups, or empty soda cans.

One day, after a week where it seemed like the barrage had been escalating, I reached down, grabbed a rock, and threw it back. It was a pretty heavy rock. I still remember the rather sickening thud it made against the car door.

The car pulled over and James got out and began stomping in my direction. He outweighed me by probably 40 or 50 pounds and I’m sure he expected me to run. I did not. Instead, I said something phony tough, like “Come on!”

I’m not sure what I’d have done if he’d followed through. I wrestled at the Y, (but within my weight class!), so I’d have probably gone in low, hoping for a leg grab to upend him. Most probably, he’d have beaten the crap out of me. But it never came to that. I was a brain and he was a hood, and it was a busy street, and plenty of people had seen the first object thrown at me. Even if he won the fight, he would have lost, because hoods get into trouble pounding on guys smaller than they are, especially if the smaller guy actually puts up a fight.

So he turned, said something that I didn’t catch, got back into the car, and he and his buddies drive off.

They left me alone after that.

Several years later, on my last trip back to Donelson before my folks moved away, my Dad bought me a $350 used car as a present to take back to graduate school. As I was leaving town, I stopped off for gas, and there was James, working at the gas station. I was enough of a snobbish snot to take pleasure in the thought of him being stuck in a dead end job for the rest of his life.

My high school class hasn’t had many reunions, partly because what had been our high school is now a middle school, so there’s no administrative push for reunions. But we did have a 20 year reunion, and I won the prizes for “came farthest” (you’d almost need to leave the continental U.S. to beat me), and “most changed,” which was basically my classmates voting on whose appearance had changed the most. The still long hair and beard carried the day. The guy voted “least changed” did indeed still look a lot like he did in high school; I just didn’t remember him as looking as gay as he obviously now is.

At the first party on Friday night, held in the “Don’s Den” building that was the after-the-game party place that I’d actually never been to before, I saw James. He looked very good, with no major weight gains, smile on his face, and a pretty wife nearby. “Hi,” I said (or something equally clever). “What are you doing these days?”

“Actually, Pete,” he said, “I’m a cop.”

Later, I learned that he was not only a cop, but he was a major honcho for the Nashville Police Kids Summer Camp (or something like that) the sort of place where you send kids who are starting to maybe be a problem, in hopes that some summer sunshine, clean air, and good role models will straighten them out. So that’s part of his job now: being a good role model.

Okay, okay, it’s almost as stereotypical as the gas station gig. Wild kid turns his life around and becomes a policeman. But narratives work like that. At some point, James had to decide who he wanted to become, and he chose to be like the authority figures he’d had experience with, the ones who had probably more than once cut him slack when he needed it, the ones who’d been there themselves in a previous turn of the narrative wheel.

James had been a major driving force behind organizing the reunion; he’d wanted to show the rest of us he’d turned out well, good family, good job, pillar of the community. And I liked him, and I liked that he was proud of what he’d become, and I liked that he wanted to show it off,

We get plenty of narratives about the curses that are passed down from the older generations to the younger: poverty, pedophilia, drunkenness, drug addiction, child and spousal abuse. I take from James the counter-narrative, that the right mix of kindness and authority is also contagious, at least if supplied to the right person.

I once took it as a major sign of my own personal evolution when I realized that I really didn’t believe that the world’s problems would disappear if everyone was like me. There are plenty of people in the world who aren’t much like me at all, who add to the world and my appreciation if it. James is one of them, and I hope he prospers.

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