All photos by the author.
It's 1962. I'm in seventh grade and one of the popular kids. I'm not athletic but am quick-witted, and I balance my handicaps with sarcasm and put-downs. I think I'm pretty funny, but more likely I'm just mean.
My mother wants me to learn humility and takes me away from afternoon cartoons to deliver care packages from the church to families experiencing hardship. I'm brooding in the front seat of the Oldsmobile, listening to the radio-Gene Pitney, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The song is pretty dorky but I liked the movie, where Lee Marvin was great as the bad guy. We drive over and down Central overpass into the poor side of town. I'm glad I don't live here, but there's something about the landscape, something romantic about the shadowy lifestyle-something dangerous like Lee Marvin as the bad guy.
In a neighborhood of rubble roads, we park in front of a rawboned house that looks waterlogged and soft. Mother goes to the door and talks for a minute to a woman with a turned-down face and a stick figure. We have six bags of groceries in the trunk of the car. I take two bags and mother takes one and we go inside. The living room has no rug, no paint or wallpaper, no furniture. At the back wall, two boys my age are on the floor watching a black and white television. I've seen them before at school: the Bramble brothers. One is big and the other is my size. They're watching the Three Stooges, which is what I wish I was doing.
They don't turn to acknowledge us, which is good-this is one of the few times I don't want to be noticed. My luck turns bad when my mother, who is here for charity but remains a stickler for politeness, tells the Bramble brothers that maybe they could leave the television long enough to help us carry in the rest of the groceries.
They look up at mother, then at me, and for the first time in my young life I see hatred in the eyes of others. I don't really understand it, but I don't dwell on it for long. Tomorrow, when I'm joking and laughing and impressing the pretty girls in pretty dresses, these guys will be standing in the free lunch line, wishing they were dead.
A year later-eighth grade-an aberration called New Math is introduced to the American classroom. It won't last more than a few years but is supposed to make us into scientists so we can beat the Soviets to the moon. In fact, it's just a convoluted way around basic arithmetic and a total waste of time. I passed through elementary school without learning my multiplication tables and I'm unprepared for ciphering beyond ten fingers.
Sitting in class listening to the teacher and looking at the numbers and symbols in the book, my brain panics and runs screaming from the room. Because I can't grasp New Math, or diagram a sentence in English class, the school puts a retard mark on my folder and when I start high school in ninth grade, I'm in special-ed. The kids in my homeroom are mostly disadvantaged-they don't come from educated families and they're slow on the uptake.
On the first day of English class, the Bramble brothers take seats on either side of me. The big one says as long as I'm just sitting here, maybe I'd like to suck his peter. I tell him ha ha, that's funny as dead babies. The smaller brother calls me a stuck up shit-ass and a little pussy, and with that he slugs me hard on the arm. I tell him hey, fuck you, I'm no pussy, but I don't hit him back. The bigger brother hits me hard on the other arm and nearly out of my chair.
For the rest of the year I take the hits but retaliate with derision. I'm just visiting, I remind them-they're going to be hillbillies forever. The following three years of high school I don't see the brothers much and change direction when I do. By the time I graduate, the Bramble brothers have long since dropped out.
In 1968, a year out of high school, I beat the draft and have no plans for college and am living at home. I was in southern California for a while but came back for a friend's funeral, and now I'm stuck here until the next opportunity. I get a job in a print shop running a paper folder but it doesn't work out. My dad gets me a job in a camera store and it doesn't work out. I hear about a place that hires anyone willing to work and pays a dollar fifty an hour. It's a turkey processing plant and all day long the turkeys come in from trucks, gobbling and wobbling through chutes and ladders and when they come out on the other side they're wrapped and trussed like embryos, ready for the oven.
I work the line. The turkeys have already been plucked, decapitated and gutted. They enter the damp, white-tiled factory hanging from eye-level bars and move around the room like a board game. Four women at a steel counter have buckets of guts and giblets which they put into little white paper bags and stuff inside the turkeys (along with wire trussing hooks). I'm standing, along with three other idiots, in front of a large vat of icy slush, and every fourth turkey is mine. I pull it up off the bar, slap it on my tray, force its legs down together, and push its tail-stub into the cavity. I wire it all together and then throw the turkey like a cannonball into the slush.
I've worked a couple of weeks and I've just finished a shift and I'm in the locker room changing out of the company coveralls when Mike Bramble, the one my size, comes in. He's covered with turkey blood, which means his job, in another section, is more fucked up than mine. We nod but don't say anything. I get dressed and go out to the parking lot and sit on my motorcycle, and when Mike Bramble comes out I ask him how's he doing and how are things with his brother? He tells me his brother's in Viet Nam, which is where he will be going as well sometime soon. I tell him that's fucked up, and he says yeah, fuck you, you fuckin' pussy.
He turns and walks north, deeper into the bad side of town. I figure I've had enough of the turkey plant, so I leave a streak of rubber in the lot and never go back.