Friday, May 13, 2005

Where I Was

In response to Gwenda. Again. (Or maybe it’s in response to this from Christopher. No, I guess not.)

Halfway through my second semester of college I withdrew from my classes and moved home. I was nineteen, had no idea what I was doing in school, and was trying to recover from a disastrous crush on a girl in my dorm. Also, I didn't understand Pascal, which was the computer language my programming class was trying to teach me. (Our first big assignment was to write a program that would read a file of pin counts by frame and generate a bowling score. I can't score bowling in real life, so I don't know how I could have been expected to teach a computer to do it. Also, this was 1990, but even then I don't think anyone was using Pascal.) I thought that maybe I wanted to write, and I had begun a novel, but I was groping in the dark, with no direction, no idiom of my own, and really, no clue.

So I went home in shame. The only class I was going to miss was English 208, where in addition to Jay McInerny, Toni Morrison and F. Scott Fitzgerald we were reading Tomas Rivera, Moacyr Scliar, Jorge Amado and other writers I had never heard of in all those years of more or less indiscriminately reading genre fiction. I took all the books home, including those we hadn't read yet.

Charlie, the father of one of my high school friends, was a principal at a school for mentally and physically challenged kids. St. Paul had recently begun an experimental school, Saturn School of Technology (it still exists, but it became Saturn Riverfront Academy and now it's called Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary School--yay for that remembrance, even if the thought of losing Wellstone still makes me want to put my fist through a wall). Saturn was sharing space with the school for challenged kids. Charlie offered me a job--two jobs, really. One, I would work as a bus aide for his school, riding to the school in the mornings with a bunch of kids in wheelchairs and then back in the afternoons with a different bunch of kids. In between I worked for Saturn School, handling attendance inquiries (i.e., calling parents to find out why their kids hadn't shown up at school; this was not always pleasant, particularly when kids were marked absent by mistake. More than once I had parents vowing to beat or kill the supposedly truant offspring whom they had dropped off in front of the school. The percentage of parents who went into panic mode was substantially lower), doing basic lackey duties for the teachers and secretaries, and monitoring the playground at lunch.

I had to take the city bus from my parent's house to downtown, transfer to another bus, then walk a few blocks to the hospice where the kids lived. There was a motorized ramp that lifted the chairs, then we steered them onto the back of the bus and strapped them in with these long seat-belt like contraptions. The kids--I call them kids, but some of them had to have been older than I was--were almost completely non-verbal; they might smile if you talked to them, but generally they just kind of stared into space. On the way home, I had a different bus driver and a different group of kids; younger ones who traveled in car seats but were equally non-verbal. These kids lived at home, and sometimes when we got to their houses no one came out to get them. One of the kids lived with a large family in public housing, and more often than not the entire family was sleeping when we arrived, at 1:30 in the afternoon. The bus driver would have to call the dispatcher, who would call the apartment, and we would wait five or ten minutes for someone to wake up and pick up the phone and come out to get the poor kid. I wish I could remember his name. He was a really sweet kid; he never made a sound, but whenever I carried him on or off the bus he would hug me like I was his best friend.

Anyway, I spent a lot of time on buses while I was doing that job, so I spent a lot of time reading. I read all of the books I had left for English 208, and one of them was One Hundred Years of Solitude. I knew nothing about the book and less than nothing about magical realism or El Boom or Colombian history. But (and I know I'm not the first person to say this about Master Gabriel, so forgive me if you've heard it all before) that book changed everything. I couldn't stop reading it. I read it at the bus stop, I read it on the bus, I read it walking to the next bus stop. I said good morning to the kids and strapped them in and sat down and read. I helped the kids off the bus and went and did the attendance calls and then, if there was nothing for me to do (and there often wasn't), I read in the office. (Bad form, I know, but I was nineteen and not exactly committed to my work.) I wasn't even there, at the school, or on the bus, or waiting for people to collect their kids. I was in Macondo, seeing ice for the first time, feeding poor Jose Arcadio while he sat tied to the tree, climbing onto the roof to watch Remedios the Beauty undress.

When I wasn't reading the book I was thinking about it, about how things like this happened, about how a person could have created a story that was about things that were simultaneously so real and so patently impossible. When I finished it, when the book had wrapped in on itself and swallowed its own (curly, pig-like) tail like the sleek mythic object it was and is, things had changed. I didn't think I wanted to be a writer anymore; I knew I did.

Every time I re-read One Hundred Years of Solitude (which is one of the few books I re-read these days, on account of the Books in the Basement), I get flashes of those days on the bus, those kids, and that feeling of having discovered a map to a place I wanted to be.


Anonymous DavidS said...

Fascinating stuff, Knut. I read One Hundred Years after I'd graduated college and moved to Boston. I was temping at Harvard Business School and was doing little more than occupying a desk for the occasional phone message and opening the mail as all the Profs were gone for the summer.

So I read and read and read. And it was one of the great deals of my life that I was paid to read One Hundred Years of Solitude.

One thing I loved about the book was the way the language was so raw and vital at the beginning and by the end was dark and twisty and Faulknerian. I don't know how much to credit Gregory Rabassa for that, but Garcia-Marquez always said the book was better in English. (Not that I particularly trust that opinion.)

1:26 PM  

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