During my Boy @ The Window research and writing years, I sometimes took requests from the group I initially interviewed to reach out to other Humanities and Mount Vernon High School classmates. And so, even as I struggled to make the family side of Boy @ The Window mesh with the school side of the memoir between 2007 and 2011, I did a dozen interviews outside the first couple dozen. They weren’t very useful, considering the limited contact I had with some of these former mates back in the day. But they did provide some additional insight into my cohort beyond those I had to deal with nearly every day for six years, wisdom more useful for thinking about things like American narcissism or the current national climate.
There was one conversation I had with a former classmate that was more telling than so many others. At the request of one interviewee, I reached out to her sometime in 2009. I called her up, and her husband answered first. Once I went through the professional back-and-forth about who I was calling and for what purpose, there was a pause and gasp on his end, a surprise that I somehow spoke English and knew how to conduct an adult conversation.
She listened in on the other line.
“You sound so different,” she chirped. I’m thinking, I’m 39. Of course I sound different. What did you think? Life for me ended at 17? Really?
“You know, Donald,” she continued, “you were, uh, well, uh—”
“Weird. That’s what you mean to say. I know I was. I know what I was like back then,” I replied.
“Yes! Yes!” she said with bemusement and relief.
At that point, the husband made some quip and hung up his receiver, and I chatted away with my former classmate for another 90 minutes.
But the whole time, I was pissed. Really, one of your favorite songs while we were in high school was Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Rock,” and I’m the one who’s weird? Especially when “Night Moves” is so much better? Especially when the average Mount Vernon student would have seen both of us as “weird?” Ugh! I asked my wife after the call, “Why are so many of my former classmates such assholes?
I already knew why. Being part of some clique or in-crowd, being “cool” or “special” in some way, was everything for so many of the cliques I was of but not in while schooling between seventh grade and senior year and Humanities (1981-87). When in actual conversation, I could relate to nearly every group at the joint, but those conversations were few, and became fewer by 12th grade. My eclecticism made me not Black enough, my inability to stick with a sport made me not athletic enough. And my ranking as 14th in my class (really 12th, because two juniors were graduating a year early) was both too little and too much for the nerdy Humanities set. So, I did what I always did when the cool cliques couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge my existence or respect my space. I gradually ignored them and built a cocoon for my heart and head. They will not get in, they will not stop my plans for life beyond them. They’re assholes, they can go fuck themselves. That’s what they’ll end up doing anyway.
Three and a half decades later, and nearly three years into a pandemic that has killed at least 1.1 million Americans and made at least 100 million sick (with 6.5 million dead and 611 million sick worldwide), the US is playing Russian roulette with every person’s lungs and lives. Please note that these numbers are massive undercounts, all with the intent of getting everyone back to work and keeping a stalled capitalist economic system of profits over people going.
Yet a majority of Americans are running around as if it’s 1972, unmasked and hanging out at concerts, sporting events, and barbecues, jumping on airplanes and going to vacation spots, and living their so-called normal lives. All while catching COVID-19 Omicron variants over and over again. Schools and universities (including my own) now have few (if any) mitigation policies in place. Stay two meters or six feet away from me? “No, I want to breathe all over you,” is today’s social distancing. Other than the elderly, the immunocompromised and disabled, and those who live with them, the US has become a dystopian free-for-all of “live now, die sooner or later, oh well, you do you.”
It’s always been like this in the US, the world leader in claiming narcissism through the guise of individualism. Wearing a medical-grade mask, getting tested, avoiding mass spreading events, and getting vaccinated were just 16 months ago, though, when fewer than 10,000 people were catching COVID-19 per day, and deaths were in the low-200s. And though the rest of the world is faltering at following these basics nearly three years into the pandemic, they are falling America’s death cult lead, after all.
I have two articles predicting this behavior, both in Al Jazeera. It was so easy to predict, because the same kind of in-crowd behavior I saw in my classmates in the 1980s is exactly how most Americans behave in all areas of their lives. We are truly a nation of attention-seeking assholes. Thirty-five years ago, it was classmates with whom I shared lots of common interests who shunned me because of my kufi or because of my Bible-toting phase or just because cooler cliques might shun them too. Now it’s Americans who otherwise agree we should all wear masks indoors (at least) walking down halls in university buildings literally turning colors and coughing up a lung while maskless. This behavior is disgusting, biologically nasty-disgusting, and calloused, and heartbreaking, and nerve-racking to the point of paranoid.
As I tweeted to a mutual earlier this week, “I feel contempt, I feel rage, I feel depressed. Mostly, I’m making sure my double-mask (N95/medical mask combo) is fitting tightly.” I make it even tighter whenever a faculty member or my students — especially the “cooler” ones, the buff white athletes and the future hotep Black guys in the classroom — stare at me like I’ve grown two extra heads out of my neck.
They can stare all they want. This double-mask combo of mine will not come off as long as I can help it. I will continue to spray my classrooms down whenever I can help it. I will spray and wash my hands as much as I can, as long as I can help it. I will stay away from indoor and outdoor dining and indoor and outdoor events with unmasked people as long as I can help it. If this makes me weird, I want to be the weirdest person on the planet. I welcome it.
This return to “normal” smacks of a paranoid desperation of its own. A desperation present in the undead bodies of World War Z. So unthinking and desperate are America’s policies and people to normalize a pandemic that it’s almost as if they think it’s cool to spread their debilitating germs to all of us. We as a nation will pay dearly for this, for years, maybe even for decades to come. In so many ways, many of my former classmates, the World War C set, and the extras in World War Z aren’t that different. They welcome assholery, and they play with and at death, sometimes eating it, sometimes being eaten by it.