[Author George Saunders recently gave a commencement address at my old school, Syracuse University. His theme was that his only regret in life is insufficient kindness. It reminded me of something I wrote three years ago about an incident during my time in Syracuse. I have reposted it here.]
I wish I had a better memory. Many writers tell such vivid stories about their youth as if they happened yesterday. Me, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast unless I double-check the unrinsed bowl in the sink. My memory has been this way since well before my senior moments began outnumbering my moments of clarity. Instead of focusing on the here-and-now, I’ve always fretted about tomorrow instead.
I wish I had the instincts of a fiction writer. Many writers tell stories that include vivid descriptions of the atmosphere, the décor, the sounds and smells of their experience, with dialogue quoted verbatim. Me, I couldn’t tell you the color of the walls surrounding me right now. Let me look … They’re green. But I couldn’t tell you if it’s pea green, olive green, lime green, dollar-bill green or Exorcist-puke green. To me, green is green.
My confession of shortcomings is my way of saying that I can’t make this brief story resonate the way a good fiction writer could, spinning my disappointment at my own failings into narrative gold. All I can do is verbally tap-dance like this for your entertainment pleasure while distracting you from the fact that there’s no depth to my narrative, and then pound the moral into your heads with a hammer.
It was the fall of 1969, my freshman year at college, or maybe it was the spring of 1970; I know it wasn’t winter because I don’t remember wearing a heavy coat. I was in the Syracuse Amtrak station, waiting for a train home for a holiday, carrying a suitcase that I’m sure was overflowing with unbelievably dirty clothes (some things are impossible to forget!). I was sitting at the luncheon counter in the station – I won’t even think of trying to describe it – and I was waiting for my burger and fries to arrive. I don’t know what I was wearing, but it probably included jeans, sneakers and sweatshirt, because that was all I ever wore except when necessary.
A female college student sat down at the counter next to me. I don’t remember what she looked like – I can sort of picture long, stringy brown hair, but I can’t recall a single feature of her face. Nor do I remember what she was wearing, except for one thing: an antiwar button on her lapel. It was one of those light blue ones with a drawing of a dove – that’s what most of us wore a lot of the time.
I usually wore one too, but probably chose not to that day because I was going home and didn’t want to trigger a political discussion with my father. I had distributed leaflets against the Vietnam War, had participating in the November 1969 march in Washington along with about 499,999 others, and had helped organize a small demonstration that hadn’t been worth my time or effort. I was completely simpatico with the message on her lapel.
The couple that operated the grill came over to the young lady. I wish I could describe them, using porcine terminology, but for all I remember, they could have been as skinny as rails. I do remember what they told the young student, however: “We’re not serving you.”
Try as I might, I don’t recall the reason they expressed, if any. I don’t remember if they quoted John Wayne or Richard Nixon, whether they mentioned the American flag or the brave boys overseas, or whether they used the phrase “love it or leave it.” I just remember that they questioned the young woman’s patriotism, and she left distraught, perhaps in tears.
Here’s where my memory gets crystal clear: I wanted to slice off half of my burger and hand it to her, slide my plate over and say, “Want some of my fries?” But I didn’t. I was a teenage boy and I was hungry.
I wanted to say to the couple behind the counter, “What makes you think I’m any different than her? I have the same political beliefs. It’s just coincidence that I’m not wearing a button today. In fact, my views may be even stronger than hers. When you judge a book by its cover, you might not even be aware that the one with the bland cover may have even more offensive content.” But I didn’t. I’d already paid for my meal with my measly college student budget and I wanted to get my money’s worth.
Given a small chance to share with someone in need, I got selfish. Given a small chance to stand up for my beliefs at a very small personal risk, I chose silence. It was a small thing, but it’s given me reason to show a little more sympathy for someone who has demonstrated moral cowardice. That’s not something I’m bragging about.
A better writer would have taken note of the color on the walls, the music on the radio, the physical appearance of the young woman, or the sounds of the trains entering and exiting the station and used those elements to enhance the depiction of a moment in time when I realized that I would never live up to my own inflated expectations for myself. But this writer comes up empty trying to recall the details. All he remembers is the embarrassment and disappointment. The mind is funny that way.
Or maybe “funny” is the wrong word here. I told you I was bad at description.