The empty boxes that remain after the holidays have given me one final gift: a Christmas postmortem. The relevance to writing is, again, like the other Cannibal Essays I have written, learning to see outside the box. And no, this isn’t one of the boxes referred to in the title, but it does trace some events that jarred me to consciousness. If you want to be creative in any way that expresses truth, I think you have to find and cross the two-lane bridge of insight and imagination.
They say things happen in threes, and this is a three-some column, kind of a Scrooge visitation thing, only instead of greed the vice was self-pity. Last month’s column (http://storytellersunplugged.com/thomassullivan/2006/12/16/thomas-sullivan-khaki-man-the-peanut-butter-players/) was itself one of three, and the flurry of e-mail from people who were touched by Khaki Man touched me as well. Thank you. If Khaki Man took my compassion to another level and made me a more complete writer, there were moments before that – moments bound in some way to a place or a period of time – that worked the same slow miracle. Such a time and place was a bitterly cold Christmas when I was living in an old men’s hotel, filled with human wrecks. It was a hotel for very old men, indeed. I was 19.
The Lawndale was $7 a week the first year I lived there (no, it wasn’t during the Civil War, though it did burn down eventually). Could’ve fled back to the ‘burbs of Detroit for the holidays, could’ve found a home-cooked meal. But I was proud, stupid, a little too martyred when I was actually in that horrid coffin of a room, which was not often. I was doing selfless things gratis for others, I thought. And I was a bit of a maverick, not succeeding where everyone said I was supposed to succeed, nor given to letting my emotions show over the failures. Never mind that I got a million dollars worth of self-pity out of it. I knew that writing was an option that was open to me, but I had the camera pointed in the wrong direction. It was pointed at me. I think a lot of writers start out like that.
When I did have to return to my room at the end of the day – four walls I could almost touch all at the same time – I tried to be numb. Do you know anything as seething with emotion as deliberate numbness? Or as blinding? I hated the Lawndale with such a passion that I was deaf and blind to the human misery and loneliness there, and more importantly for a writer, equally walled off from a lot of incredible stories. In this case, the walls were paper thin, and you could hear the moans and the groans of the dying and the drunk. There were unwritten laws, peculiar to males. If someone came in beat up and bleeding, you might hear every drop of blood dripping on the vinyl runner in the hall, but if you opened your door, the gasping and the rest of it stopped. In that mistrustful place, you didn’t dare flinch before a tiger. No quarter asked, none given. Fine with me. The people I cared for didn’t live at the Lawndale. The place made my skin crawl. And above all, I hated the man across the hall.
All the rooms were as tiny as mine, but unbelievably the man across from me had a roommate. I never saw the roommate, never wanted to, but I had a picture in my mind of a pathetically submissive creature completely enslaved by the brute I did see. The bully would come in, drunk and wheezing, and thirty seconds after his door clicked shut the vilest verbal abuse I’d ever heard would begin. Sometimes it went beyond that, and I’d cringe to hear the blows. But I never quite got the guts to go stop it. Part of the code, you know.
Thus I lived, and so a new Christmas morning came, and with it the hollow feeling that I was, in fact, truly alone. I know now that this is absurd, particularly in a world teeming with emotionally isolated people. But when you are young, there is nothing emptier than the suspicion that your self-pity is justified. I had less to my name than $10 that morning when I set out in my wreck of a car, the “Grey Ghost.” Hit the White Tower, a.k.a. the Porcelain Room, for a “scudburger” Christmas dinner. I don’t remember if there were any other customers at the counter, but I vividly remember the old lady scraping the grill. She was celebrating, you see. Celebrating. Not sitting at the counter waiting to be served, celebrating. It took me a few minutes to catch the irony of that. I had to quit staring at my reflection in the glass opposite and realize that all the photos strung along a green ribbon on one wall were probably her grandchildren. She shuffled back and forth with the gait of someone arthritic or maybe with fallen arches. And, damn it, she was singing. And she had on a silly Santa hat. And there was red and green bric-a-brac and fake snow and angel hair all over the place. A wrapped present, too, though you could see there was nothing in it – just fluffed paper. Don’t remember finishing that scudburger, though it ranks right up there with memorable cuisine. Think I was having a little trouble swallowing at that point. Out of my head, too, because suddenly I knew that if a grandma had to work on Christmas day and could be like that, then I had to stop taking and give something back, and I didn’t have anything. But the bill had knocked my $10 in half, so I left a $5 tip and got the hell out of there.
It was compulsive, and by no means charitable, but I felt better cranking the Grey Ghost to life and starting up Livernois toward Vernor Highway. Hoarfrost on the inside glass of the White Tower, and out here it was arctic, and as I’m approaching the railroad tracks, I see a man in a cardboard box. His head is cut and swollen, blood frozen in his hair, and he’s barefoot. Lawndale rules do not apply in train yards, and the poor bastard, who it turns out has just crawled out of a freight car, is going to freeze very quickly, so I stop. The old story: got drunk, rolled, left to fate. What strikes me is he is naked inside the cardboard box. I mean, they took everything, as if out of malice to let him die. You can’t imagine the blubbering gratitude of a Tennessee man up to visit his sister at Wayne State, who just about becomes a vice-icle when his binge turns bad. It took us a couple of hours to find his sister’s apartment, because he didn’t have a clue, except by scrutinizing every neighborhood as we inched up and down the narrow streets off Woodward. Merry Christmas.
So now I’m feeling pretty good, except that I have to go back to the old men’s burial ground. Revisit the self-pity. Oh, I’d been a good lad for a few hours, and learned something, I guess, but like a movie, it was over. So the Lawndale ate me up, and I climbed to the second floor, and the last room in the line – 210 – which was odd, because later in college I would be in room 210, and again, teaching at Fordson High in Dearborn, 210. Anyway, now that I was back in you know where, you know who came in on my heels and started you know what. The bully was on a tear this time. Drunk, vile and violent. I stood it as long as I could, and longer than I should have by months. Then, when I thought he was going to kill his roommate with the blows, I went out into the hall to stop the creature I loathed.
Thought I was going to have to fist his door a couple of good ones, but as it happens it was slightly ajar. He was berating his roommate with terms I cannot begin to write here, and I could hear the smack of flesh on flesh, and as I took two steps toward the wedge of light, I saw it all. The mirror. The face in the mirror. The whole room behind him in the mirror. The marks from the fists were clear on the cheek above the stubble. And I saw the last blow land. But the testosterone boiling in me suddenly went as flat as water. Because he didn’t have a roommate.
He was beating himself. Berating himself. Calling himself everyth
ing but a child of God. Nothing I had felt or thought about him all those months could approach the depths of his own self-hate. How could I have been so wrong? An epiphany moment for me? Yeah. You could say. Damn my soul if I ever underestimate any human that badly again, though, I’m sorry to admit, I’ve been over the line too many times since. My self-loathing neighbor slammed the door when he became aware of me, but he opened another to my future as a writer.
I’m not a soft touch. I believe in human excellence and transcendence, if only we can get outside of whatever boxes imprison our thinking. Low expectations cripple people, and are really a vote of no-confidence. It doesn’t matter what that man at the Lawndale lacked. What mattered was what he had, which was a mirror filled with more self-honesty than most of us could stand. He knew who he was. What he was. And at that moment I knew what he could be. I can’t tell you what truths you’ve discovered about yourself or about the human condition, but I know that they will come out in your life one way or another. You may have to look outside the box to find those truths first, of course. Writers need to engage in that search with openness and vigilance. Good writers never stop searching, or evolving. If people have happened to you today, stories have happened. The world presents us with limitless possibilities. Find the ones you can reach, according to who you are. Until you do that, you have not fulfilled your own potential as an observer, as an artist, or as a human being.
May I thank those who have taken the trouble to email me? What you have to say informs me, shapes me, and makes my life richer. My web site is below. If you’d like to see more of my writing, please check out the free sample chapter from my latest novel, THE WATER WOLF.
Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are welcome, your attention valued.
Thomas “Sully” Sullivan