They Taunt Therefore I Am
I had yet to encounter that well-known monster known as the “other.” The concept of the other had yet to crystallize in my head. The kids on the old rustic sidestreet where I was born were on the peaceful, nonviolent side, but I recall one jarring episode from that time. I don’t mean to read too much into this tale. Still, it stung me into self-awareness and helped to mature my worldview. In fact, it added a first sniff of edginess to my five year-old narrative, a hint of darker things to come.
It was a raw first: a small blast from the glare of dawning selfhood. An odd feeling of being vulnerable, a target, exposed. There was a point in time when my reflexive self-conscious “I” woke up. I’m talking about the curious leap into self-observation. The age of naïve solidarity with existence was about to come to an end for me.
It was during a childhood incident, in which I was suddenly forced to be conscious of myself as both a subject and an object. A certain oneness of spirit we ascribe to innocence in one blow broke into fragments. The cause was a patch of childhood mischief, peppered with a dole of mindless malice.
Voices are shouting: “It’s the ice-cream man! The ice-cream man is here!”
Into the warm spring afternoon the ice-cream man in his white, one-storied truck had arrived. His name was Lorenzo and he was indeed magnificent. Out of the truck and up on to the curb in full view he stepped forth, immaculate in his white uniform and creaseless white hat. And the whiteness was complemented by Lorenzo’s black mustache, tan face, and late-in-the-day, world-weary smile.
Once more the parents shout: “He’s here! He’s here! The ice-cream man!”
A sudden hush, the children stop chattering: hands appear, purses open, coins are dispensed. From the corner of my eye: small, middle-sized, and large hands are maneuvering, transacting--parental fingers bestowing; little open hands, catching nickels, collecting bits of shiny metal. All this, of course, the prelude to the purchase of the miraculous edible known as ice-cream.
I’m watching all the hand action–a curious, calm witness. But for some reason the boys and girls shift their attention toward me. No doubt about it. They’re looking at me. In fact, they’re staring at me.
At first it wasn’t clear why. But then I noticed that their attention was fixed on my hands. Mmm?—Ah! I get it. My hands were empty.
Nothing was bestowed upon them; no kin came forth to lard ice-cream-lusting fingers with the necessary U.S.A. nickels. Their hands by some contingency of world-history have coins plopped in them; their soft lucky little hands were showered with nickels and dimes. But it was emphatically observed that no coins had been placed in my pathetic little paws.
All the while I’m starting to feel a wee bit objectified—a curious and novel feeling; yes, quirky, crappy, a ddefinite owner.
The other children were now staring intently at my empty hands. For some reason my hands had become objects of intense curiosity. Their emptiness was charged with meaning. My naked palms stood accused, and all of a sudden--through no fault of their own—began to visibly reek of shame and dishonor!
I just stood there, mildly aghast, a certifiable victim of ice-cream manqué.
Meanwhile, an impatient Lorenzo was still waiting, the features of his usually serene face now firmly twisted into contained fury, the Olympian composure altogether blown.
“Ice-cream man,” he growled softly.
“Look! Look” Jenny and Peter say, ignoring him as they shove their hands in my face, each showing three shiny nickels resting in their palms.
“We’ve got nickels,” declares Bernardo.
“Yes, we do—nickels! Nickels!” chime Jenny and Peter.
And then, much to my astonishment, they inhaled in unison, and all together chanted: “Nickels! Nickels! Nickels!”
The ice-cream man rang his bell in a burst of anger, his lips twitching with indignation as the kids shoved their fists in my face.
Lorenzo jumped back into his truck, rang the bell furiously, and shouted, “The ice-cream man is gone! The ice cream man is gone!” and drove off, spewing clouds of truck exhaust in our faces.
I told my mother about my encounter with the nickel flashers; she said nothing, didn’t even look up. When my father came home with a paycheck in hand, it was too late for the ice-cream man. My father dropped some coins in my shirt pocket, and that was the end of it. I was thankful for the cash but was smarting from the jarring put-down from my compatriots.
But then even bad things have uses. The incident had the effect of breaking my naïve trance of solidarity with the world around me. For the first time, I felt a metaphysical chill, the sensation of having been singled out, picked on, made fun of. I tasted what it felt like to be treated with scorn and contempt. I didn’t fall apart. I sat in my room, thought, and felt a surge of resentment. The experience left a bad taste, but it did help to clarify my sense of self. When you’re attacked, you know you’re somebody; the sense of self is sharpened by opposition. Life is not all harmony. It’s important to cut loose from that illusion.
(The above is from an unfinished work of mine titled, Cutting Loose: A Metaphysical Memoir)
Mike, whether the episode you describe was a dream, a mind-wandering fantasy, or a 'real' event, the resulting take-home lesson about the need to ground ourselves in what Freud called 'the reality principle' seems inescapable, especially if we want to lead healthier, happier lives. But, in spite of life's many varied experiences that should have helped each of us learn to distinguish reality from illusion, I'm afraid most of us fail to fully learn this most critical lesson. The current political polarization in the US being a case in point: Groups at the extremes of this spectrum have two very different views about the world and they both cannot possibly be correct. And, no, I do not believe that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
One would think that there would be a strong association between having such negative, albeit life-growth experiences (e.g., ravages of war, other forms of violence, extreme poverty), and ability to see the world more clearly. Sadly, that doesn't seem to me to be the case. I do wish we gave this important problem the level of attention that it merits, so thanks for raising it.
Thanks for your comment, Miguel, on this very real experience that I recall from my childhood, and there were others that hinted of the larger issues to come in the greater adult world. I had my first lessons in psychology and politics in many boyhood encounters. One thing I early discovered, apart from how easily we can be misunderstood,is how cruelty is so readily manifest in our species.
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