My Twentieth Century

by Jonathan Wallace

At the beginning.....

Somewhere around 1957, when I was three years old, I became aware of the world. I lay awake at night and before dawn listening to noises in the street which I could not explain, so I made up stories to account for them. I remember imagining an army of babies marching down our little street.

There was a vacant lot in the corner and a little breeze whirled dead autumn leaves around in a circle. There was an automobile tire with water in it and I tried to pour it out, but the water ran around inside the tire in a circle like the leaves.

I had dreams: I went out in the backyard and touched a stray cat and an angry buzzing bee flew out of its ear and chased me back to the house. In another, a Godlike voice in the sky called, "Waitress! Waitress!"--an interesting word I did not understand.

The adults understood the world, were very powerful and could protect you. Sometimes they made mistakes: an adult could trip and pour hot coffee on you.

When it was too noisy for me to sleep and my father (closing the window) told me that he had asked all of the fire engines to turn their sirens off, I believed him.

A toy submarine sat on a wooden kitchen chair by the bed and if I looked at it with each eye alternately closed it appeared to shift position and so did the slats of the chair.

There was a black housekeeper, Lucille, who took care of me and I knew she was different from us but did not really understand the nuances. Then I knew she had a daughter, Lorraine, and wondered why she lived with us instead of her own husband and daughter. I climbed in Lucille's lap and told her a poem about "Lorraine on the terrain."

We adopted an adult dog for one day but something didn't work out and we sent him away.

A baby brother was born and at first he only cried. Lucille got upset one day changing him and swore: "Oh brother, oh sister."

We watched the Lucy Show on television together but it was too complicated and I couldn't really understand it.

I knew there was a president, Eisenhower, but I didn't know what he did.

I was friendly with a girl, Elise, who claimed she could read and told me that the billboard over another vacant lot said, "Danger, Indians live here."

I wanted to think of an invention but couldn't think of anything new and wondered if everything had already been invented.

The bomb

In 1962, during the week of the Cuban missile crisis, we were dimly aware something was happening, as the adults were very nervous. We stood on the corner of Avenue M and Ocean Avenue and watched planes flying over and thought each one was an enemy about to bomb us.

A man on the radio said that if you happened to be on the street when the attack came you should try to roll under a parked car.

In school we had nuclear drills where we went under the desk and put our heads between our knees. I think I wondered even then how the wood of the desk (they were the extremely ancient ones with the inkwells) or even the brick of the school could protect us from the bomb that could end the world. The adults didn't seem very confident.

There began a series of nightmares which continued through the end of the 1960's: I stood and watched the bomb drop, knew I would die in minutes and could do nothing.

Within a few years I had read John Hersey's Hiroshima, which confirmed all my nightmares: flesh melting from limbs, people totally dissolved while their shadows remained burned into walls.

At the end of the decade I enjoyed the poster which said, "In case of nuclear attack, put your head between your legs....and kiss your ass goodbye." There was a cartoon from the East Village Other entitled "What to do in case of nuclear attack." Some of the suggestions were, "Decide to grow a beard," "Start reading War and Peace," and "Whip off a quickie."


I started a company on the assumption that it would be like a family, a community, and a crusade rolled into one.


A high school teacher showed us Bunuel's Chien Andalou and explained why it was art. I made a film of the New York Times burning and showed it to him and he was visibly distressed.


A woman came to the house to congratulate us on the birth of my brother and she dropped dead the same night.

A twelve year old girl from my Sunday school class ran away to her parent's weekend house, fell asleep smoking a cigarette and died in flames.

My father was diagnosed with lymphoma. "I'll be dead in eight months," he said, and he was. He had the chemotherapy anyway. At the end, he kept spiking fevers and losing his mind; finally, on a clear day, he swore he would take no more antibiotics. "Is that what you want?" I asked. He laughed and said, "I want to live twenty more years, but I don't have the choice." He was dead five days later.


We closed the high school to protest the Kent State killings and I had the bullhorn, turning slowly in the center of the marching circle, yelling "Nixon doesn't care about us: he'll send us to die in Viet Nam."

The next year, 1971, I went to Washington and slept, with several hundred thousand others, by the reflecting pool.

In the mid-80's, my wife and I marched in Washington again, supporting a woman's right to abortion, and I realized how much I missed demonstrations.

I spoke to a small group, about 110 people, in front of the White House, protesting the Communications Decency Act.

A year ago we joined a demonstration in East Hampton against the Millstone nuclear plant. The feelings of community, of solidarity in Support of a good cause, were intense and sweet.


In high school, pot, pills and acid were freely available. There was an idea that if you took enough acid you became a higher life form than human, able to see things no-one else could. But it was only a way of simulating schizophrenia and two people I knew became truly schizophrenic using it.

Every day an ambulance came to Midwood to take away someone who had eaten too many seconals. "I can eat eleven reds and still walk," the hitters boasted.

I knew two other kids who strangled on their own vomit like Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin.

I sat at a table in the cafeteria and watched some kids I knew snorting heroin and wished they would offer me some. A few months later I stopped doing any kind of drugs at all, because heroin was next and I needed to pull back.

I still don't know why we don't legalize pot, though, because its less vicious than beer and a whole lot less fattening too.


All strangers seemed friendly until the day an older child came around the corner with a toy sword. We asked to see it but he whipped us with it until we ran away screaming.

There was a group of bigger kids who would torment me, and when they were there, Elise was their friend and not mine. They dragged me in the street one day until my knees bled. I remember trying to run from them one day and my father stood at the door and would not let me in the house. This is one of a number of things I remember from the 1950's that my parents later said could never have happened. At the time I did not understand. Perhaps he did not think the other children represented any threat and that I was being irrational. Perhaps he was trying to teach me a lesson in courage, to face them instead of running away.

At noon, there was a siren every day that frightened us and we ran into our houses and hid.

Everything on television was very hard to understand. There was a news story about a disaster that had occurred in a schoolyard, either an explosion or a tornado. Children had been killed and their severed heads were recovered from the wreckage. It had never occurred to me that children could die.

By 1960 I had the night terrors and lay awake every night until I was too exhausted to go on. I worried about the Loch Ness monster poking its head in the window, the Abominable Snowman, ghosts and ax murderers. The Disney version of the Headless Horseman was enough to cause me to lose a night's sleep. The insomnia continued for years.

My father slept in my room one night and I lay awake, but was glad he was there. Another night he promised to stay up until I fell asleep but came in finally and said he couldn't any more. He went off to his room and I stayed up as usual until my eyes closed of themselves.

I made a game of it and told my brother that we would stay up all night. He agreed happily and was asleep minutes later. They had moved him back into my room on the theory that I would sleep better with him there.


A neighbor rang the bell and asked, "Are you aware your house is on fire?" I looked up and saw smoke pouring from the window of my attic bedroom. I went in and warned my family, then filled a bowl with water and tried to climb the stairs to get my pet box turtle, Berryman. The smoke was so thick in the attic stairway that I turned around with a sense of shame and went out.

The firemen came and smashed through my window with their axes. I tried to talk to Lilly, the pretty Protestant who lived on our corner, but she didn't want to chat; she had come to watch our house burn.

Afterwards I asked the firemen if Berryman was alive and one said, "Nothing could have survived up there."

We went to sleep at a friend's house a block away, and in the morning I came back and climbed the stairs to my room. It was nothing but rubble; the firemen had smashed everything on their way to the fire; my little table had been flattened and my floor was a pile of splintered wood and pieces of insulation from the roof, which had a hole gaping to the sky. The turtle's tank had been knocked to the floor and smashed. I began digging in the rubble and after a moment I heard a hiss. Berryman's water bowl had landed on top of him, and had protected him from everything else which fell. Twenty-seven years later, I still have him. He is a very quiet pet.

My television, my stereo were ruined; it was then I learned that such things are anonymous and completely replaceable. My books were mostly intact, with smoke damage around the corners. Most of my writing had also survived: I understood that these were the only important, irreplaceable possessions. My room had sustained three kinds of damage: from the axes, the smoke and the water. We lived at our neighbor's for three months while a contractor rebuilt the top floor and repaired the roof.

I read the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus for comfort in a book with smoke-stained pages. I told a professor at Brooklyn College that my term paper was late because my house had burned. We became friends and years later, when I spoke of the fire, she said, "I always thought you made that up."


I am an optimist about human nature, and I am always shocked when I meet people who want me to fail.


In 1994 I turned forty. I made a list of things I wanted to do: publish a book, start The Ethical Spectacle, run a company, write fiction. In the following five years I did them all.

Freedom of Speech

In Brooklyn we had an expression, "What's on his lung is on his tongue." I just wanted to be able to say anything I had on my mind, without fear of consequences. The trade off for that is that you can do the same thing and I must tolerate it. It doesn't seem so complicated.

The Galapagos

In 1994, at age 40, I realized a life-long dream and went to the Galapagos. I saw the giant tortoises and swam with seals, turtles and penguins. Most memorable somehow were the horrible boobies. They lay two eggs and the first chick to hatch destroys the other. I became very depressed on the trip and am still not entirely sure why.


I invited God to manifest himself but he wouldn't even lift a pencil to prove that he existed. I thought about God as the absence of an explanation, as a way of saying, "Stop asking inconvenient questions." I asked what caused God, what came before him. I imagined an empire of jello people who left no trace on the fossil record: certainly they could have existed, but what reason was there to believe in them? I saw no more evidence of God.

The Government

In grade school we were taught we had the world's best form of government, and that we enjoyed perfect liberty (but no-one ever could really explain what that was.) In city hall, in Washington, there existed mature, rational people who ran the world in an enlightened way.

In high school we learned democracy through student elections. When one of my friends ran for class president, his speech to the auditorium was against the war in Vietnam. "Another nail in your coffin," said the dean of boys and removed him from the ballot.

I went to work for my local Congresswoman, one of the few rigorously honest people in politics, and dealt with community issues. One of the complaints we took was of date rapes (the term didn't exist yet, but that's what they were) committed by the son of a city councilman. The boy had too much political cover to be prosecuted for them.

I worked in the presidential campaign of another honest politician, Morris Udall, but I didn't like what I became. Eager for a particular assignment, I told the campaign manager another college student "wasn't well placed to do it." The college's democratic caucus allowed any member to vote immediately after joining: I proposed bringing in ringers to join and pack the meeting on the day the caucus voted which candidate to endorse.

I applied to law school thinking I wanted to enter politics, but by the time I got there I lost interest, because I knew I didn't like who I was in that world.

The Grown-Ups

By 1967 the grown-ups were completely exploded: I had lost the last shreds of respect. They mainly seemed frightened and bewildered; their explanations, simplistic and jingoistic; their harshness, defensive. The world was a swamp in which no-one seemed to stand on bedrock. My own desire, then and now, was to plant my feet as firmly as I could.


Five men in ski masks came into a Paris post office and pointed semiautomatic weapons at me. Life stopped for a moment as they went out the door, the last man covering us, and I thought: "Now I am either going to be shot or not." He did not fire.


In the 1950's we lived on the upper story of a two family brick house. The landlady lived downstairs. She had a beagle named Waddles. There were roses in the backyard and I tried to count them but lost count every time.

In 1959 we moved to a big house with white aluminum siding on East 21st street. It had a front porch and a back porch, a front yard and a back. The bushes and flowers were cared for by an Italian gardner who came once a week. There was a tree in front from which you could peel the bark. In the backyard there was honeysuckle and we learned how to suck the inside of the flower like candy. The backyard had rich loam soil and we dug in it or used the clods for dirt wars.

When I made friends in the neighborhood I saw I had the biggest house of anyone I knew. My parents were both doctors and we were very comfortable.


I saw a movie, The Boat is Full, which changed my life. It told the story of a group of Jews turned back at the Swiss border in 1942. I volunteered to defend Haitians in political asylum trials. I never won one; the system was tilted against them, because Papa Doc Duvalier was a U.S. ally. I understood I would never win a case unless I could put a member of the Tonton Macoute, the death squads, on the stand to testify: "If you send him back I will kill him."

But I kept most of my clients in the US until an amnesty was granted.

All our ancestors were immigrants but everyone seemed to want to close the door.

A week ago an attorney I was interviewing told me he was in the Reagan Justice Department in the early eighties. He said of a mutual acquaintance: "That's when I met her...she was on the radical fringe, defending Haitian immigrants." "So was I," I said. It was a proud moment.


Of course there is no such thing, as when complete entropy reigns there will be no-one to recall that humans or their works ever existed. However, we make and do things so that people may remember we were here. When I do my own balance sheet I find most important that I set some ideas loose on the Internet which may remain in the archaeological record. That is my best shot.

The Joke

I rode my bicycle around the corner and was stopped by two threatening older boys, who told me the thematic joke of the twentieth century:

"Two lions are taking a shower. One says to the other, 'Pass the soap,' and the other one replies, 'No soap, radio.'" They both laughed uproariously, but I didn't get it.


"You don't go to synagogue," my father complained. I asked when he was last there and he said, "I went swimming a few months ago."

I read in the paper about a man who said we weren't white and a boy named Mark Koss told me in the schoolyard that we had killed his Lord. A man named Clint Tomlinson told me the same thing thirty years later.


I went to Kenya and stood on the Masai Mara plain, watching a herd of antelope. One had a broken hoof and I knew it would be dead by nightfall, taken by a cheetah or lion. There were also rotting dead antelope and skulls; one had a sense of irrepressible life wrestling with the Second Law, rising out of the ground and sinking back into it.


"You enter law school thinking about what's right and wrong," someone said, "but you leave thinking about what is and is not the law." A law professor warned me not to expect intellectuals in law school. Both were right.

I left the law in part because I didn't want to stay in a profession about which anyone felt entitled to tell you an appalling joke in the first five minutes after being introduced to you.


Terrible things kept happening. Everyone knew a woman who disappeared while hitchhiking, or someone shot or stabbed in a bar fight, or a man found dead without his wallet in a bad part of town, or thrown out the window of his own apartment. War was murder writ large, murder war writ small. It was inescapable that humans were just wired wrong, poised between murder and art, and it was impossible to know if they would sink in the mire or climb into the light.


In the house right next to use lived a woman whose grown up son was crazy. He had been a professor and then he cracked up and came home to live with her. When I was in the backyard he would come to the fence and talk to me, but he didn't really make much sense and I tried to avoid him. He usually had a fixed smile on his face and years later, I recognized that same smile in news photographs of Arthur Bremer, the man who shot George Wallace.

Down the block lived a girl who at first was just another friend but whom we soon recognized was not like us: she was a "retard". Even her Halloween costume was retarded: she went as a playing card when everyone else was a ghost, monster or witch.

Around the corner lived another crazy man who lived with his silent, black-clad mother. He sidled up to you talking incessantly of "Mrs. McGillicuddy, the Martians and the jazzcats." When we were a bit older we discovered he was very fearful: if you threatened him he would shut up and run away. It was very interesting being able to frighten an adult.


I went online in 1984 and found a community and also a clientele for my law practice.

The Outdoors

I walked the three hundred mile Long Trail after graduating law school in 1980. For the first few nights I had terrible nightmares and expected psycho killers and monsters, but then the terror all leached out and I began to feel safer in the woods than I did in the city. I walked for thirty days. Towards the end of the trip I went four days without seeing another human and when I finally met someone language seemed strange as if it had to be re-acquired for the encounter.


I lived in Paris for a year and saw the sparrows leaping for crumbs below Notre Dame, the sharks and deer hanging up on the Rue du Commerce. I bought un sandwich avec frites with my last ten franc piece the night before payday. I felt more charming, more interesting in French than I did back home. I wanted to stay but it didn't work out.


The first president I was old enough to have an opinion about was Richard Nixon. I knew he hated me and wanted me to die, as a hippie who opposed the war. I understood this because after the shootings at Kent State he telephoned only the parents of the murder victim who was in ROTC, and not those of the three demonstrators.

I watched him on television, with his anxious, guilty face, waiting for his Freudian slips, and thought: we are truly in the hands of a psychotic.

Around 1982, I got into an elevator at 26 Federal Plaza, where he had an office, and he stepped in with two secret servicemen. He had been chatting with an immigrant in the hall and he told his guards, "What a nice fellow! He owns a Chinese restaurant!" All the way to the street, I formulated what I wanted to tell him, but I never opened my mouth. I didn't want to be wrestled to the floor by the secret service.

Gerald Ford, our second unelected President, proved that anyone could run the country and we would more or less muddle through. It was probably safer to have an idiot in charge than a psychotic.

I liked Jimmy Carter, probably the most honest president in our century, and I felt bad about what happened to him. He talked too much: we all have lust in our heart but we don't yammer about it. When I saw the photo of him jogging with black socks, I knew he was doomed.

What is there to say about Ronald Reagan? Here is a joke which is cruel given his condition today, but which I heard around 1984. Nancy and Ron go into a diner and she orders: "I'll have the blue plate special and a Coke." The waitress says, "What about the vegetable?" Nancy replies, "He'll have the same thing."

George Bush: another moron at the helm, to be remembered throughout history for vomiting on the Japanese prime minister.

Bill Clinton: an irrepressible fuckup, always snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, worst president of my lifetime.


The first black people I knew (none lived in our neighborhood) were our housekeeper Lucille and her husband, who came over to do some carpentry and whom I admired for being more capable and deft than my father.

A retired judge who lived on our block had a black chauffeur and one day someone shopping for a home asked me, "Does he live here?" I wished afterwards that I had said yes.

One Sunday a black child my own age appeared on the block with a wonderful race-horse game which we played on my front lawn for an hour. When he got up to leave I didn't want him to go; he promised to come back the next Sunday, but I never saw him again, nor did I ever again see that magical toy.

I believe at that moment, when I was seven or eight years old, I was perfectly free of any prejudice and that any negative ideas, any fears of black people, were learned later.

We were liberal Democrats and officially in favor of civil rights and integration: from the news we were aware of the awful things happening in the South, particularly the murders of Mrs. Viola Liuzzo while driving a black man to vote and of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman in Mississippi.

Nevertheless, a gross hypocrisy of which the adults were largely unconcious was in the air we breathed. I heard Lucille, who was my parents' age, referred to sometimes as the "girl". Whenever a black teenager rode by on a ten-speed bicycle, someone would speculate on "how he got that bike."

At school black children were bussed in from other neighborhoods and seemed very angry. A teacher slapped a black child in the hallway, but I never saw a white student treated that way.

I was almost always in the "Intellectually Gifted Child" programs and there were few black students there, so I saw them mainly in the halls, the yard and the cafeteria. I understood much later that when court orders integrated the schools the adults had found a way of creating segregation again.


In first grade, Mrs. Newmark took me aside one day and told me to finish the reader over the weekend. After that, while the other kids worked on their lessons, my assignment was to read anything I wanted from the school library. I took out a book for junior high school children called "The History of Civilization" and learned (as Gibbon said) that history is the record of human folly and misfortune. The book included a memorable photograph of a contemporary member of a primitive race with a huge cut across his chest inflicted in a coming of age rite.

Reading immediately became what it has been ever since: my refuge from the violent jaggedness of the world, a way to impose some order, to build a house to protect me from the storm. Later, friends and women were jealous of the time I spent with books.

A few years ago, a friend who had been in AA explained to me that everyone has their "drug of choice": for some it is alcohol, for others cocaine, for yet other people, food. "What's mine?" I asked. "Reading," she replied without a moment's hesitation.

Rock and Roll

The best concert I ever saw was the Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore East in 1970.

I saw them again on their reunion tour in 1993 and it was very sad. The band was fierce but intellectual. When they sang, "We are dirty, dangerous, violent....and young," at age sixteen I wanted to climb right up on the barricade with them. They were my role models. In 1993, they were just a bunch of sad middle aged waifs seeking a little more capital.

When I first grew my hair and started doing drugs in 1970, the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter album was just out. The title cut is, I believe, the world's greatest rock song and a twentieth century anthem:

Rape, murder, is just a shot away....

If I don't get some shelter, I'm gonna fade away....

I saw the Stones in 1971 and again in 1993 and I had more respect for Mick Jagger: he started out more commercial than the Airplane but stayed more feral. Still, its a sad experience seeing a band after a twenty year interval: its better to keep moving, stay with the young music. There's more profit in seeing Alanis Morrissette than a reunion tour of aging hippies; stick with the fire and stay away from the pathos.

The music of my twentieth century: Gimme Shelter, Crown of Creation, Layla, All Along the Watchtower, Zombie. "Its the same old deed since 1916..."

Scuba diving

Freud said religion was an oceanic experience but the only such experience I ever had was in the ocean: rays of cathedral light slanting down on a coral reef.

The Second Law

I realized that life was a battle of self-organizing principles against the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The only possible outcome is a complete state of entropy. Art is the droppings we leave to indicate we have been here.


On the first day of kindergarten when a red-haired girl ran up and threw her arms around me, exclaiming, "I love you!" On the last day of school, she said, "I don't love you any more!" I never knew why she loved me or why she stopped. This set the pattern for all my relations with women after that.

I took J. to the movies on a Cape Cod evening, then kissed her as we walked home through the woods, but she didn't want to see me again.

Stoned on pot, I saw L. as a map of a town and for the first time in my life, found the town square.

R. wrote, "I wish it was you here beside me." When she got back from the Soviet Union, I asked her about it and she said she meant to write, "I wish you were here beside me." Five years later she admitted to an affair that summer.

A. wrote me after she broke up with me, "I may be a butterfly but you are a bully."

L. didn't find me interesting enough, T. only wanted a one night stand. I became very tired.

I married M., a social worker who afterwards started her own psychotherapy practice. She speaks French, draws, plays the piano and has published two books. I woke up one morning and realized that the woman I married had metamorphosed into the woman I always wanted.


I read Heinlein and wanted to be the boy in Have Spacesuit Will Travel: find aliens capable of understanding me better than the people around me. The night men walked on the moon I turned away because my life had already diverged from the dream of going into space: it had become small and the image on the screen was too large.

When the Challenger exploded I thought: I have lost any chance I had of going into space as a tourist. Last December I watched a shuttle launch and felt the old desire again.

Leaving the planet may after all be the best chance we have to perpetuate the species (though it will also give us the opportunity to pollute new places and harm life forms we haven't met yet.)

There are still days when I feel that if there was a colony ship leaving for Proxima V tomorrow I'd sign up in a New York minute.

Viet Nam

We were fighting a war in Viet Nam which at first seemed to fit within the neat parameters of World War II. At age twelve I was able to talk about the "domino theory" and the fight against communism. We had a debate at school and I took the pro-war position; but Diane, the advocate for the other side, was more passionate than I, and persuaded me.

We watched the war on the nightly news and I couldn't fit it into any framework of sense: it was all chaotic, jittery shots of people running, flashes of artillery fire, and statistics about death: so many of our soldiers killed, so many enemies (always four times or more our own casualties.)

Later I did a calculation: our school auditorium held about 1000 people. The auditorium filled over and over with bloody American corpses, fifty times, was a way to understand what we had lost in the war.

Memorable photographs, the South Vietnamese colonel executing a prisoner, the twelve year old naked girl with the napalm burns, were ultimately persuasive: we were trapped in one more nightmare which the adults couldn't explain. The world was owned by murderous clowns.

I asked my father whether I would grow up to die in Viet Nam, and he said, "It will be over before you are draft age." Six years later, I drew a low number (42) in the lottery, but they had ended conscription. The war continued another year or two.

He also said, "Anyway, its always the other guy who dies in a war," but I figured that the other guy's father had told him the same thing. So I might be the other guy.


In 1963 they sent us home from school one day because the President had been murdered. I knew it was no longer Eisenhower but Kennedy but I didn't know anything else about him, though I was now nine years old. As I walked home, a friend kept shouting "You did it" and absurdly, I kept replying, "I did not!" The housekeeper, Lucille, was crying in front of the television when I got in.

If they could kill the president then anyone could be killed.

At some point my belief that my father could protect me from anything had shifted to a belief that he couldn't protect me at all. He was not physically powerful and he often seemed to be at a loss how to deal with the provocations of the world.

I was continually aware of killings, riots and explosions everywhere, and in general violence had begun to seem the ruling principle of the world.

At school children could come over, punch you and take away the french fries you had just bought at the corner truck. If you took your bicycle too far off the block, you got into neighborhoods where tough kids of a kind you had never seen before would threaten you.

Just around the corner, in the apartment building, lived children whose parents didn't have as much money and who seemed to resent us for living in houses. Sometimes they came around the corner and started fights with us: we had dirt clod wars but sometimes the battles ended in fistfights. No-one had ever taught me to fight and I got a black eye.

For a year my parents had sent me to the Friends school, where we weren't permitted to play games involving guns, but my parents concluded it was too strict and after that I went to public school.

My heroes were Maverick and later Napoleon Solo and we had extremely realistic toy guns and chased each other down the lawns. Dramatic, spinning around death scenes were common, after which you leaned over the victim, waved your fingers at his midriff, chanted "fixed him up, fixed him up" and he got up again to rejoin the game.

World War II was a common theme of the games. It was a comforting war with extremely easy to understand sides. Everyone's father had been in it except mine and I was a little embarrassed for him.

Later, when I was twelve or thirteen, I felt a bit emboldened. I raised my fists to an obnoxious kid in the schoolyard, he raised his, we whirled around a couple of times, and he broke away without either of us landing a punch. A few weeks later I tried the same experiment with a kid who was harrassing me outside the neighborhood. He hit me a number of times in the chin; I couldn't block him and aimed my own punches at his stomach, barely landing any. When I asked myself later why I didn't also aim at his face, the only answer I could find was that I was afraid of hurting him, but he hadn't feared hurting me. I never started another fight.

By then there were always kids who wanted to hit you and sometimes they did it in the school auditorium, with oblivious teachers nearby. In junior high school there was a kid so huge he frightened the teachers; he could punch you right in front of them and they would do nothing about it.

I had a few successful experiences putting my hands behind my back and saying, "I'm not afraid but I refuse to fight you." In general, nonviolence only works with people who are bound by some basic rules of fairness, as Gandhi discovered. Acting crazy also deterred a few people from hitting me.

Television, movies, the books we read confirmed the idea that all conflicts were ultimately settled by violence. We loved the Tommy Hambledon cold war spy series by "Manning Coles". "Hambledon shot him neatly through the head" was a sentence I remember seeing several times in every volume. There was no mess or fuss, no brains splattered on Hambledon. At the movies, a gangster shot six times in the chest had no blood on his immaculate white shirt.

But in the first few minutes of Dr. No, a woman was shot in the breast and she bled. At Benny's, the corner candy store, there was a rack of cheap paperbacks: on one memorable cover, a screaming nurse had just shot a patient, who had a huge gaping red hole in his chest. We bought gum at Benny's and got "Invaders from Mars" and "Horrors of War" cards, which showed blood, people being crushed by tanks, skeletons, exposed brains.

Someone brought a book of Holocaust photographs to school and we saw pictures of emaciated corpses. In seventh grade they showed us the short film Night and Fog: emaciated corpses sliding into pits.

At Brooklyn College a professor asked: what was the darkest century of human history? When we answered the fourth, the twelfth, he said, no, the twentieth.


On New Years' Eve, I'll be in my house in the east end of Long Island, with some cash money, a flashlight and a few extra cans of tuna fish, waiting to see if the whole rotten edifice crumbles under the weight of human arrogance.