If you didn’t yet read Part I, here you go.
In 2008, I wrote a mini story inspired by a kid I used to know named Keith. He was really odd, would spit on himself during study hall, had very strange views of the world and America, was generally gross and unappealing and said his greatest ambition in life was to become homeless. I considered myself his friend and talked to him regularly, but wasn’t unaware of his quirks and the impressions of him held by most of the student body. What I wrote was largely fabricated, but it actually was inspired by a real-life guy who really did spit on his trousers during school and dream about being a hobo.
Walk past red lockers, up some steps, past more red lockers, make a right. Eighth period was English. Pick a chair. Sit down. Await the arrival of The Conch, the million-year-old genius of a teacher, unfailingly accompanied by his trusty aluminum flask buried in the breast pocket of his primordial plaid shirt. First things first, he would reach for a sip.
“What do you have in there every day, Conch?”
“It’s tea,” he’d say. “Don’t ask again.”
Named after the shell of the same name, Conch’s favorite literary character was Piggy from Lord of the Flies. He loved this book so much he read it aloud, in its entirety, to his classes of 12th grade AP English students each year as if they were kindergartners. And without juice boxes and sugar cookies, everyone slept, letting Conch wax idiotic and entertain himself in an alcoholic stupor at the front of the room. He also had an extraordinary affection for the work of Geoffrey Chaucer and the heroic tales of 14th-century Middle English combatant Sir Gawain. It was believed that he lived alone in a small house with minimal lighting, one aging cat, and approximately three hundred infinity zillion hardback books.
“We have a partner exercise to do today…” he started, a whispering symphony of “crap” following from the students. “The goal is to sum up your personality, your essence, the way you see the world, in three sentences. The second goal is to sum up how you see those same things in your partner in three sentences.”
These were the clever in-class assignments Conch let loose once a week to give the impression he cared so he can get back to reading to himself.
Conch let us know he was taking the liberty of picking our partners. Most students hated when teachers did this, as it forced them to participate with people outside their comfy little cliques. I didn’t normally care, as I didn’t particularly like anyone, making it all the same. On this particular occasion, as luck, or uninhibited wickedness would have it, I got paired up with Citrus girl, the fruit-scented cousin of the pencil throwing bronze medalist from study hall.
She walked over to my desk smacking the blue gum in her mouth like those little white teardrop sacks of gunpowder you throw around on the Fourth of July. I already wanted to punch her in the ear.
“Hi again. If we’re doing this, I’m gonna need to borrow a pencil or pen or something,” she said.
“Big Boy get all yours stuck in the ceiling?” I asked, knowing full well he did.
“Yeah, actually,” she said, shocking me to the core.
I handed her a Bic and pulled out a ragged slip of yellow legal pad paper, the closest thing to a notebook I carried. I didn’t see a great deal of importance in taking notes. Just about everyone took them, and just about everyone never looked at them again once they crossed the threshold of the classroom door a handful of minutes later. I figured I’d save my wrists.
Three concise sentences to describe Citrus.
The paper I handed her had dried jelly on the corner.
I wrote with less readability than a Pakistani doctor lying on the roof of a moving train. Only a pharmacist or a Navajo windtalker could read my scribble.
Three concise sentences to describe myself.
I told her to not get too excited and self-indulgent, as I didn’t bother to write anything about her, aside from the word “boob” three times.
“Why not?” she asked.
I explained to her it’s because we didn’t need to dance with superficial compliments. She didn’t need her ego fueled through classroom exercise. She got enough of that on a regular basis from everyone else.
“Whatever,” she said and her attention to the rest of the sheet. “Um…”
Her eyebrows snaked into a peculiar shape of curiosity. Apparently she reached the three sentences describing myself. And managed to read it, no less.
If it hasn’t been made obvious by now, I was actually quite shy. When I walked through the halls, I bonded with the wall, drawn by a magnet of timidity. I slipped past the gangs of people, talking about hair gel and boys and girls and math tests.
My pants were long and you couldn’t see my shoes. I kept my head down. I was a shadow.
Normally I didn’t talk very much. Normally nobody wanted to hear from me anyway. But for some reason, Citrus wanted to pry.
“You want to be homeless?” she asked.
Of course I do.
The average lifespan of a school cafeteria lunch sack is 1.1 days. Most people trash their bags every day, while a handful may have taken it home for one refill before basketball tossing it into the large grey cylinder of death. Not me, no sir. Thursday was day four for one particular sack, as it started to show its age. Why throw away a perfectly strong bag? Surviving day after day is not easy, even for a bag – especially for a bag – and for that reason, I helped it out. Tape over the rips and holes, help to keep the thing together. Sure, bags wear out eventually… but it’s worth forcing them to hold on as long as possible.
Why? It was a metaphor.
It’s life, and it’s ripping faster than you can tape it.
Lunch was an illustrious event. Jelly on bread. Grape jelly is the best flavor of all the jelly options available. In my opinion, there is a damn good reason it is the customary jelly flavor. That is not to take anything away from strawberry, raspberry, and all the other fantastic choices. It’s just that grape is the standard. It’s orthodox. And it’s just swell. And all jelly is superior to jam. I’m not even sure why jam exists. It’s that whole capitalist mentality – selling the same thing twice in two different fashions to make double the money. Like when you order pizza and they offer you breadsticks with marinara sauce as a side dish. That’s a goddamn pizza, separated. And as for preserves and fruit spreads… don’t even get me going. That’s pushing it.
As I ate, my peers stared at my taped bag, plain bread and jelly sandwich and made their assumptions. They all wondered why I ate alone. They all wondered why I was so creepy. They all wondered why I didn’t mind being dirty. And they each cast their stones. It didn’t help that a few minutes prior I provided them a vehicle with which they could drive their jeers.
What happened before lunch is I rather cogently plowed into a fat girl clonking down the building’s main staircase. Albeit an unintentional act, I slammed into her with a fine bit of gusto, somehow peripherally missing her mattress-sized book bag that could have been transporting a family of Nicaraguans, only to have her shout “fuck off, druggie!” for the nearby gaggle of fellow students to witness.
I’d never done drugs in my life.
Citrus had also asked if I was a druggie after I told her I wanted to be homeless. Apparently if you’re not spending every waking hour playing with laptops, buying new jeans, listening to hip hop or throwing footballs, you are a druggie. These things made the other people better. It made them superior. It gave them the ability to keep pretending they had no problems. They didn’t have to try and understand me or think for themselves. I was just just the queer. The radical. The witch in the village.
Lunch ended. The bag didn’t. After a few pieces of tape, it would be ready for another day.
I suppose that up to this point, I’ve been ignoring a handful of rather crucial facts about my behavior. Earlier I promised to address the presence of stains on my pants. Let me fill in some big gaps in my character with one all-encompassing statement:
When I was young, at the time we’re examining right now, I used to spit on myself.
Hence the grossness. Hence the crusty pant stains. Hence the people thinking I was on drugs, the self-inflicted solitude, and the three personal essay sentences.
I would spit on myself.
I did have a rationale, a raison d’être, well, at least I did at the time… and I’ll tell you what it was.
I didn’t want to find myself a materialistic glutton, chained to a kitchen table, limp, my lifeless face masked by a plate of moldy spaghetti, with Morgan Freeman tisk-tisking over my rotting shoulder. People are forced into doing work they don’t want to do just so they can buy all the same garbage and wait for the next advertisement to tell them what they want. I wanted to be the one guy with the decisive goal to become homeless. A revolutionary anarchist. Becoming voluntarily homeless is the best way possible to stick it to everyone.
Sticking it. What a concept.
So they saw me as a freak, a crazy person, a radical, a slob… and that was all very well. Not only were my pants from a second-hand store, they were unwashed, stained and stinky. And for all the above is why, on every normal day, I heard these shouts echoing off the jagged red brick study hall wall every ten minutes or so, passing through the teacher’s looming cloud of authoritative indifference, parking itself safely in my obedient ear.
Freedom time for the slaves.
They’d say, “Hey Keith, spit on yourself!”
They’d say, “Spit on your pants!”
And I’d always be happy to oblige. I did spit on my pants. And I did it well.
My saliva was the Gettysburg Address.
They thought I was a freak show. But getting off on me spitting on myself means they enjoyed it, and they wish they had the stones to do the same. That’s what I thought. Obviously. A freak became God. Everyone spends their high school years troubling over their image, figuring out who they are, trying to categorize himself or herself, trying to invent a person they can tolerate. I was doing the opposite.
“Come on, spit on your pants!” They’d ask for it.
Every time, the room fell silent. The giggling gang of giddy girls turned to hush. I couldn’t help but contort my face into a wicked smile when I looked at them, their eyes set on me as if transfixed, waiting, watching, wondering. I was Hannibal Lecter before munching a guy’s eyeball like a cheese cube. The longer I stared at them, the longer they’d presume about how insane I was.
I procrastinated. They got antsy.
Antsies in their pantsies.
And then, at the crescendo of my perverted performance, I would send a long bubbling saliva noodle flowing down to the thigh of my already spit-stained-four-sizes-too-big corduroys.
It was Juneteenth in study hall.
I brought them into my world, and they didn’t even know it.
I was a hero.
I was Moses.
We all briefly escaped this place, and I showed them the way. I transformed from a depraved boy to a spiritual leader. I had rewritten history, redefined the laws separating civility and depravity, and it all passed by.
You must admit, though – it had its sick respectability. The freedom to live one’s life the way one wants. To do the things one wants to do without fear of persecution, without judgment, without ignominy or lament. The ability to choose every action and be proud of the consequence, because it’s what you wanted to do. That’s the idea behind life, right? That’s why we’re all here?
I remember rather well a conversation that soon followed. It is the conversation that eventually led to my departure from my home. The conversation that would encourage me to become homeless for real. At least for a little while…