Every day as a pre-teen I’d race from my family’s apartment in the Marlboro Housing Projects in Bensonhurst across the long open-air terrace onto which all the apartments on the floor opened, towards the elevator, straining to reach it before the door slammed shut behind me. If I could beat that door; if I could get there before that door slams, I told myself … if I could push myself hard enough and fast enough then there’ll be no more wars. Everyone would live in peace. Black people will have equal rights. Everyone’s life would be meaningful. If I could only beat that slamming door!
Ever since sixth grade, all the way through High School, I’d invent games in which, in my mind, the future of the Civil Rights movement, or ending the escalating war on Vietnam, or even the good health and happiness of my family would depend on my ability to discipline myself sufficiently to master some seemingly unrelated and irrelevant situation. Going up the stairs, I’d sprint from the downstairs door straining to reach the landing before the door slammed shut. Invariably, I was successful, by a hair’s breadth, and Nazism, racism, or death itself was defeated, dead to the world–at least until the next time I raced the slamming door. Each time I added a greater distance I had to run in order to win. The combination of elation and relief with every “victory” (and this occurred at least once every day for eight or nine years), empowered me over conditions I wanted to change but over which I had no control.
I fought against the temptation to “waste” this effort on minor or personal desires, like getting an A on an exam. These games, in which I was the only one involved but in which every occurrence became some sort of private signal and each rearrangement of reality became an esoteric omen, were reserved for only the most important world-shaking questions. “If I don’t beat that door, it’ll prove that god exists,” I’d think, and, fancying myself to be of scientific, non-religious mind despite five years in Hebrew school, I’d never fail to beat the slamming door, never fall down, always straining against my own physical limits, never setting it up as an easy goal, and thus, always giving abstract philosophical questions a real physical dependence.
None of my friends believed in god. That was the first philosophical/religious encumbrance we’d discarded before turning the age of 12. I inadvertently caused a school scandal in P.S. 248 when I refused to read a bible passage to the honors assembly at the end of the 6th grade, after having been chosen by the teachers as the best reader in the school. The year before, I had beaten out my best friend Lloyd in the spelling bee by spelling correctly the word he missed “bouquet” before the entire school. I then spelled the word “gymnasium,” which was long but straightforward, and I was crowned the school champ –in the fifth grade!– and sent off to the district contest.
Susan Sussman congratulated me after school. She had a crush on me in fifth grade and I couldn’t care less. By sixth grade, however, our feelings had switched. I thought Susan was adorably cuddly. She had long blond hair, and wore a red velvet dress for special occasions. I dreamed about touching her dress. I called her once to go to the movies with me and my parents, but she didn’t want to. It took me half the day to build up the nerve to call her. By then, it was Susan who couldn’t care less.
My teacher, Edna Capellina, called my parents in to see her. “Your son refuses to read the bible. It’s a non-sectarian passage. It’s from the old testament. It doesn’t mention any one religion or even Jesus Christ.” My parents told her that they would stand by whatever decision I made. My dad went further and said that bible readings of any kind don’t belong in the public schools.
After a few days, Lloyd was chosen to read the bible in my place. Lloyd wasn’t as firm in his beliefs as me concerning god, but he didn’t want to scab on my decision. Out of solidarity he informed the school that, no, he was not going to read it either.
The school principal, Mrs. Manbeck, was scandalized. She now felt she had not only to find a bible-reader but a Jewish kid as well, to avert the innuendos. Finally, they asked Susan Sussman. Susan did believe in god. Her family was very religious. She leapt at the chance to read. Mrs. Manbeck was relieved. Lloyd and I tormented poor Susan by reciting the forbidden word to her: “Ye-Yaw!”, which was a phonetic transliteration from the Hebrew of god’s name that was never, never said under any circumstances; instead, for some peculiar reason, it was read as “Adonoy,” another forbidden word except when praying; we were supposed to say “Adoshem” when we came across the ever-present “Ye-Yaw” which in our minds was “Adonoy.” We also were supposed to write god’s name G-d, said Susan, as if it was a dirty word. “F-k that s-t,” I wrote to her along with “congratulations.” I never wanted to touch her red velvet dress again.
When I was 11 and my brother Robert was 9 we went off to the Boys’ Club camp in Port Jervis for two weeks, our first time away from our parents. Robert and I were the only Jews in the camp, and some antisemitic creep pulled a knife on us, saying “Jewboy, go home.” My parents came and took us home. The next year, we were sent to an all-Jewish camp. Every morning we were supposed to go to the makeshift temple and pray before breakfast. I would refuse to pray. I’d sit there thinking about the family, about being away from home. I could read Hebrew and already knew more Jewish history than the camp officials prodding me to pray. But I didn’t believe in god. Finally, the head counselor decided I was a detrimental influence on the rest of the kids (Jesus, I was only 12!), and banned me from temple; I was only too glad to oblige– it allowed me an extra hour to sleep. Suddenly, the counselor’s office was besieged by kids claiming to be atheists seeking an extra hour of sleep! I had organized my first rebellion without intending to.
Back at home, I tried to figure out what made me Jewish. My Black friends in the projects thought god was a lot of hogwash too, and we’d talk about it as we’d shoot the eyes out of the hoops. I didn’t know any white Protestants. In fact, the only ones I knew who did believe in god were Catholics. “You’re just trying to get on god’s good side ‘cause we’re the chosen people and you’re not,” I’d taunt the Italian Catholic twins, Gerard and Carl, as they beat me up. “Fuckin’ commie-queer-fag-nigger-lover-kike-bastard!” they’d holler. “You killed Jesus!”
But as the years thickened like the plot, it was a rare day in the Projects they’d catch me. I flew behind the cement barrels in the little playground in my Pro-Keds, leapt fences, tore over to my building, number 3, which was sanctuary. Everyone’s own building through number 28 was their own haven; they were untouchable there. . . . until the Italians started beating up the Black kids in their own buildings, and all the rules pried loose from the cross. On the way home, I’d shove the hall door open and tear ass down the terrace, touching my apartment door just before the door slammed shut. “There is no god,” I’d tell myself, again.
I am amazed today at the mind games I put myself through to challenge what I had come to believe. I remember when I was five years old walking with mom on Oceanview Avenue in Brighton Beach. “See that school? That’s P.S. 253, that’s where you are going to start in September,” mom explained to me. I was so excited. I wanted to look at the school from every angle. We walked around it and then over to a mailbox affixed to a cement pole. “I have a letter to mail,” Mom said. “Maybe it’s a letter to me,” I thought. And then the mind game: That’s not my name on the envelope. My name is Mitchel, that’s not “Mitchel” on there. It’s not sent to me. But what if it is? What if my name changes every day, and I wake up believing it’s my real name, and everyone calls me by my new name? How would I know the difference? Would I remember anything of my old name? I promptly banged my head on the bottom of the mailbox, just as I was thinking: Maybe that’s tomorrow’s name for me on the envelope! Mom doesn’t know– or maybe she does! Bonk! Mom was sitting me up on the ground, hugging me. “Are you all right, Mitchel?” “Yea, I’m fine. My head hurts.” It was good to hear my name.
If we believe, with Freud, that there are no accidents in the psychopathology of everyday life, the beliefs and dogmas I’d established for myself– including the uncertainties over “What is my real name?” or the mind-rattling interrogations my brother Robert and I flung at each other: “How do you know that the red light and the green light I see when crossing the street are the same colors that you see? Maybe what I see as red you see as green but call it red?” –needed confirmation.
How desperate my need to move questions and events over which I had no real power or control into my grasp! How overwhelming the drive to have control over everything affecting my life! I became obsessed with testing every question, even when I began to suspect that the path I’d chosen to accomplish that could never really achieve it. But what else could a kid do?
And so, I raced the slam of the door. I strained against my limits. Had a person emerged on the stairs or in my path; had I pulled a muscle or failed to get to the top of the stairs before the door slammed shut, that would have been a signal. But that never happened. If god truly existed, I reasoned, s/he could have prevented me from reaching the top of the landing. After each “test” I’d be almost orgasmically relieved. There is no god, I concluded for the five-hundredth time.
Who says that racing the door is the way to test what you believe?, I asked myself as I got older. By racing a door to find out if racing doors was the answer?
At first, this was a tiny nudge in the back door of consciousness, barely perceptible. Soon it grew into a burning bush, a roar, a tear in the fabric of space-time, and all my questions about the world became meta-questions about process–questions about the procedure for answering all my other questions. Is racing the slamming door the best way to answer these questions? And I answered it… by racing the door!
“Wouldn’t any way of deciding anything need to be proved,” I asked Lloyd as we batted around the paradox along with the baseballs we smacked every day in the cement schoolyard at Lafayette High School. “How can we decide on how to decide about how to decide!?” I felt like I was five years old again. “Who else even thinks about such things?”
“I do,” Lloyd said.
That was all the encouragement I needed. Soon, all my “tests” were over methodology. Maybe god does exist but doesn’t choose to reveal herself to me. Lloyd and I concocted scheme upon scheme to trick God into revealing himself. I longed to stand outside my brain and watch how it worked.
A kid’s mind is filled with wonder, and when we’re older we tend to relegate that intense searching and all of that wisdom to the realm of “cuteness,” which we no longer have time for. The rhythms of daily life don’t allow the type of observations that kids often make. Just by walking everywhere, kids develop a different relationship to the space around them and to time; that all gets lost later amid the goal-oriented auto-culture we live in, with our ability to rush faster and faster to places less and less worth getting to.(1) As we get older, we lose some of the ability to make nonlinear connections between things– dialectical leaps– which are the essence of poetry, science, art, humor … and radical politics. What exactly made Newton think, “Aha! Gravity!” when he saw that apple fall, and not: “Fucking apples all over the lawn. Autumn’s here. Soon it’ll be winter. Gotta rake the leaves?”
1. Philip Slater, The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point.