My mother and father believe that the United States is destined one day to be engulfed in a socialist revolution. All revolutions are bloody, but this one, they say, will be the bloodiest of them all. The workers (which includes me and which also includes you) will at some point decide to put down the tools of our trade, pour into the streets, shoot the police, take over City Hall, and usher in a new epoch – the final epoch – of peace and equality. This revolution is not only inevitable, it is imminent. It is not only imminent, it is quite imminent. And when the time comes my mother and father will lead it.
For now, though, things are calm and my father is sitting across from me at Colbeh, an Iranian restaurant in the Garment District, on West Thirty-ninth Street near Sixth Avenue. It is a nice restaurant, with carpeting and soft, romantic lighting and white linen tablecloths. On each table there is a tiny vase with a single daisy so precise in detail that it is impossible to discern whether it is real or fake. It is late spring and the restaurant door has been propped open to allow a breeze to blow over us, the patrons. Conversations and traffic sounds drift in from the street.
The waitress appears. ‘Good evening,’ she says.
‘Good evening,’ my father says, and looks briefly at her tits.
The waitress is Chinese. She is young and pretty, though her skin looks as if it has been drained of pigment from too many nocturnal shifts within the confines of the restaurant. She speaks softly and with a heavy accent, forcing us to lean in to decipher her words.
‘May I start you off with something to drink?’ she asks.
My father and I lean in.
‘May I start you off with something to drink,’ my father repeats to himself, mulling the sentence over for a moment, as if it’s a question he wasn’t expecting. Then he asks grandly, ‘What kind of house wine do you have?’
‘We have Chardonnay,’ the waitress says softly. ‘We have –’
‘Chardonnay! Chardonnay sounds good!’ He looks at me. ‘Does Chardonnay sound good? If I order some Chardonnay will you have a glass with me?’
‘Say, do you hear? The birthday boy will have a glass of Chardonnay with me. Therefore I think we are going to need more than just a single wine glass.’ My father grins at the waitress as if he has said something clever. The waitress smiles back, but it’s apparent she doesn’t know what’s she’s smiling about, and it’s apparent my father doesn’t know that she doesn’t know. His grin widens.
‘Let us begin then,’ my father says, ‘with a carafe of Chardonnay.’
And the waitress disappears.
My father has brought me to Colbeh to celebrate my thirtieth birthday. My thirtieth birthday was five months ago. We were supposed to get together then, but an important event arose suddenly: a forum. President Clinton had just finished bombing Iraq for four days under Operation Desert Fox, and in response the Socialist Workers Party had organized ‘Imperialist Militarism from the Middle East to the Indian Subcontinent: Washington’s War Abroad – Extension of Growing Attacks on Workers at Home’. Open to the public.
‘We will have to reschedule,’ my father had said to me over the phone. The gravity of his voice implied that the upcoming meeting would have a significant impact on world events.
Although my father and I both live in New York City, I have not seen him for a year. Before that I had not seen him for two years. Before that it had been a year and a half. Once I saw him twice in a single month, but that was balanced by going nearly eighteen years without ever seeing him, a marathon stretch that began with him abandoning my mother and me when I was nine months old.
‘He went off to fight for a world socialist revolution,’ my mother would say stiff-lipped and teary-eyed, as if she were a widow from a 1950s Hollywood film about the Second World War. The logic behind my mother’s explanation was that once this socialist revolution had been achieved my father – her husband – would be resurrected and returned to us. We never stated this belief aloud, it was unnamed and liquid, but we both subscribed to it silently, like a well-kept secret between friends. And thus, since the night of my father’s departure, my mother began to save herself for him, denying herself a sexual or even a personal life, never bothering to find either another husband for herself or a surrogate father for me. She remained, however, a committed member of the Socialist Workers Party and pursued the revolution with a ruthlessness and a zeal that bordered on the religious. She attended Socialist Workers Party meetings twice a week, as well as endless streams of petitionings, book sales, newspaper sales, rummage sales, conferences, conventions. If the answer was revolution, then she would do everything in her power to make it solid.
The waitress places a carafe of Chardonnay in front of us. My father looks at her ass as she walks away. Then he looks at the carafe of Chardonnay. Then he looks at me.
‘This is white,’ he says to me.
‘It’s Chardonnay,’ I say.
‘Chardonnay is white.’
‘I wanted red.’
‘Chardonnay isn’t red.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Shit,’ he says softly to himself.
In the spring of 1979, a few months after the Iranian Revolution and ten years after I had been born, my father moved back to Iran. He had come to the United States on a math scholarship when he was eighteen and attended the University of Minnesota, where he met my mother, a Jewish girl from Mount Vernon, New York. Because of my father’s outspoken criticism of the Shah he was unable to return to Iran for twenty-five years. The very real possibility that SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, would toss him in a torture chamber the moment he stepped from the plane prevented him from doing so. But in December 1978 two million Iranians had marched in the street, the soldiers had refused to fire on them, the Shah was running for his life, and my father was packing his bags.
He called my mother the night before he left. I was in bed with the lights off when the phone rang. Our phone never rang and the sound startled me out of the early stages of sleep. My mother and I lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment. I slept in the bedroom and my mother slept in the living room on a twin bed that doubled, without alteration of any sort, as a couch in the daylight hours, as well as a desk for placing papers and books. I could hear every word that my mother said, and by the voice she was using I knew immediately that it was my father on the other end. It was a confident voice with a touch of breeziness, the kind of voice that impresses employers at a job interview. There was no other time in her life that she used that voice. With me it was doom and gloom. She would let me know, for instance, when she was behind on the rent, or when she thought she was about to be laid off, or when the price of bread had gone up. She also cried almost every day over various things that included, but were not restricted to, the general condition of black people in the United States, the unending struggle of Fidel Castro against imperialism, the death of a young Puerto Rican boy at the hands of the police. And then she would become enraged at the seemingly carefree uninterest of the wealthy. When we walked through a well-to-do neighbourhood she would point to a large home with a manicured lawn and she would say to me, her voice dripping with contempt, ‘Look at them. The rich asses.’ And I would look at them, their car in the driveway, maybe two cars, and I would despise them for having and I would despise myself for not having, and I would pretend that I did not want what I saw.
On one occasion I mustered the courage to ask my mother to buy me a skateboard (they were all the rage at the time) and she took me to Sears to have a look. In the middle of the sports department was a bin filled with skateboards in bright bubblegum colours. A sign read $10.99.
‘Once the revolution comes,’ my mother said to me, ‘everyone will have a skateboard, because all skateboards will be free.’ Then she took me by the hand and led me out of the store. I pictured a world of long rolling grassy hills, where it was always summertime and boys skateboarded up and down the slopes.
One Christmas a tree was donated to us by a local charity.
‘When the revolution comes everyone will have a Christmas tree,’ my mother said.
‘Will we have them year-round then?’ I asked.
‘When the revolution comes no one will want a Christmas tree because no one will believe in God.’
Then we spent the afternoon decorating our tree together, stringing popcorn and kumquats, hanging lights from the branches, and when we were done we cut a moon out of cardboard, wrapped it in aluminum foil and placed it on the top.
The difference between our family and other poor families was that my mother actively chose to be poor. She was highly literate and she had a college degree, but after my father left she took the first secretarial job she could find and never looked for other employment again. My mother made no effort to disguise our impoverishment; it was a testament to how needed the revolution was and to how deserving we would be when it finally arrived. She found ingenious ways to celebrate our poverty and announce it triumphantly to the world. In the wintertime she would wrap her chapped fingers with masking tape even though Band-Aids and hand lotion were well within her budget. When we were in a doctor’s office she would deftly fill her bag with magazines. In order to avoid paying fines on overdue library books, she would pull my hood tightly over my head and instruct me to simply place the books on the counter and walk right back outside. Later she would brag to Party members of how good an accomplice I was becoming. If I ever questioned such dishonesty she would reply haughtily, ‘Any crime against society is a good crime.’ While even the poorest boys in my school were dressed in suits and ties for our elementary-school graduation, I crossed the stage in slacks and a turtleneck. Every single item in our apartment had either been purchased second-hand or had been donated by acquaintances who had taken pity on us. And if something broke, a lamp say, it stayed broken until someone could be found to fix it.
On the phone that night with my father, however, my mother’s voice was full of aplomb. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘yes, of course. The workers and peasants of Iran have been struggling for one century.’
Then my father’s response.
‘Imperialism’s boot,’ my mother said.
My father’s response.
They chatted like this for a while. She even chuckled. She never chuckled.
‘So and so’s such a good comrade,’ my mother said, using the designated term for a fellow member of the Socialist Workers Party. (‘They’re not friends,’ she reminded me many times, ‘and they’re not co-workers. They’re comrades.’)
I listened to hear mention of me. But there was none. And then they wound it up. She said goodbye. There was something good-natured in her goodbye. It wasn’t a grave goodbye, it wasn’t a lugubrious goodbye that implied permanent separation, it was a so-long-see-you-around-sometime goodbye. Then she hung up the phone.
And then she sobbed.
Great sobs. Shakespearean. Racking her body, constricting her breath. Her wails shook our tiny apartment and the other tiny apartments in our building. They shook me in my bedroom in the dark, pretending to be asleep.
When morning came I played dumb when she broke the news to me. In the alley I tossed a tennis ball against the wall. I pretended I was Reggie Jackson throwing the ball, and that the wall was Reggie Jackson hitting the ball and each hit was a home run.
It made no difference to our day-to-day lives if my father lived in the United States or Iran. It made no difference to us if he was dead or alive, really. We never saw him when he was here, nor did we ever plan to see him. He never sent us money, or letters, or gifts, and the one time he called each year (on my birthday), the exchange between us was so formal, so polite, the conversation of a doctor and his patient, that I could not wait to rid myself of the phone.
‘Be good,’ he would say before we hung up. It was always the last thing he said.
Despite years of this chronic absence, my father’s abrupt departure from the country brought my mother’s and my private fantasy life to a rude and abrupt end. There was no getting around the fact any more that he was not planning to return to us – ever.
In response to this, my mother took to removing the telephone from its hook each night, making us as unreachable as my father. After she had put me to bed she would set the receiver on the floor. In the dark the dial tone would sound as if it were a strange animal, its long, steady beep filling up the quiet apartment. I would listen to it and stare off into the black. After a good amount of time had passed a male voice would appear, pleasant but urgent, like a messenger bringing news that could potentially be troubling: ‘There appears to be a receiver off the hook. If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try your call again.’
There was something embarrassing about the recorded voice assuming that the receiver must have been displaced by oversight. As if it only needed to make you aware of such an oversight and the situation would of course be remedied immediately. Three times the man would repeat this – ‘There appears to be a receiver off the hook . . .’ – and three times my mother would ignore him. After his third try he would give up and let a shrill beep take his place. Despite knowing the pattern, I was always startled by the sound. Incessant and slightly chemical, as if alerting us to a fire. My heart pounded along with its rhythm. Fire. Fire. Fire. On and on it went, threatening to continue unabated until the morning. Fire. Fire. Fire. It crept over me and beneath my sheets. Had my mother developed some type of immunity and now I was the only one who could hear it?
Then the sound would stop abruptly, so abruptly that it continued roaming through my head. Eventually silence would drift in, take over, permanent silence, inner and outer. It was as if the phone had exhausted itself trying to get placed back on the hook. It had tried its best, but there was no more it could do. If we could not be budged it could not budge us. My mother and I were on our own. We were floating on a raft in the ocean. It was night and the waves were gently rocking us up and down and from side to side, and all we could do was hope that the raft would not spring a leak, or the water spill over the edge. There was no one anywhere in the world who could save us now. The black silence covered us, a silence so encompassing that I found myself desiring the return of the phone’s harsh grating cry. Then I would drift off to sleep.
Have you been following the coal strike in Utah?’ my father asks me.
‘No, Pop,’ I say, ‘I haven’t been following that. Actually, I haven’t even heard about it.’
‘The capitalist media is trying to keep it out of the news, of course,’ my father says, without bitterness. Then he unzips his knapsack and pulls out a copy of the weekly newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party, the Militant, and hands it to me. ‘This is the only publication in which you’ll be able to find out the truth.’
The front-page headline reads, miners say no to coal bosses. Beneath it is a photo of a group of miners standing on a picket line, laughing.
‘Very interesting,’ he says, ‘the way things have developed.’ His accent causes him to stress the wrong syllable, so rather than say ‘deVELoped’, it comes out as ‘develOPED’. ‘We are saying that this is one of the most important strikes in the last ten years.’
‘Ten years,’ I say.
‘Ten years,’ he says. ‘We have been supporting the struggle to organize industrial . . .’ He goes on, but I’ve stopped listening, stuck on my father’s generous use of the pronoun ‘we’. I had known ‘we’ throughout my childhood. When comrades talked about what they thought, they always spoke in terms of ‘we’.
‘We believe that the American government needs to get its hands off El Salvador . . .’ ‘We argue that the only hope for the working class is . . .’ ‘We say end imperialist war through class war.’
It was comforting, such inclusiveness. What I believe may be marginal, the subtext went, you may think that I am isolated, you may think my ideas bizarre and freakish, but I am actually attached to a vast contingent of people who think and say the exact same things that I think and say.
One early Sunday morning when I was eight years old I helped hand out campaign brochures for Buddy Beck, who was running for Lieutenant Governor on the Socialist Workers Party ticket. My mother and I and a half-dozen comrades stood in the freezing cold outside of a supermarket in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The supermarket had been selected because it catered to some of the poorest constituency of New York City, those who would be most receptive to overthrowing the system. Damaged groceries from other supermarkets were shipped to this supermarket to be sold at reduced prices. If you could not afford the food in this store then you could not afford it anywhere and the next step for you was the soup kitchen.
I liked Buddy Beck. He had big, strong arms and when I saw him at meetings he would lift me on to his shoulders and carry me around. ‘Look at the little comrade,’ he would say to the other comrades. And the other comrades would ask, ‘Saïd, are you going to give the capitalists hell when you grow up?’ And then Buddy would answer, ‘He’s already giving them hell.’ And everyone would laugh and I’d feel proud. One spring weekend Buddy had driven me to his parents’ farm in the country and let me help him plant seeds. I had never been on a farm before and the soil and the grass and the sunshine all entered me and enticed me and perhaps that is where I began to draw an association between revolution and long rolling grassy hills and summertime.
For hours I stood in front of the automatic doors of the supermarket holding out the brochures for black people to take from my hand, and for hours black people passed by without taking them.
‘Is there a picture of Mr Beck?’ one elderly woman asked me.
I opened the brochure. Inside was a photograph of Buddy at a debate with a Democrat, a Republican and a Libertarian. The four men were seated at a table with microphones in front of them. Three of the men were clean shaven and dressed in suits and ties, while the fourth man wore a full beard and a striped sweater and was in the middle of bringing his point home, his mouth open, his hand gesturing.
I pointed to the fourth man. ‘That’s Buddy Beck,’ I said.
The woman chuckled and said loud enough so others could hear, ‘I wouldn’t vote for that man.’
From time to time I would step inside the store so I could warm myself. Through the window I was able to watch my mother. She was standing near a pile of shopping carts that had been pushed carelessly together without regard and in her mittened hand she was holding up a copy of the Militant. When a person came near her she would take a few quick steps toward them and begin to expound on the top articles in that week’s issue. Her body language was such that it looked as if she was considering taking a stroll along beside the person, and the person, acutely aware of her proximity, would quicken their pace, leaving my mother behind. The whole interaction took only seconds. She had at most ten or fifteen words to make her pitch.
‘US imperialist troops out of Nicaragua and El Salvador. End the . . .’
‘US imperialist troops out of . . .’
‘US imperialist troops out of Nicaragua and El Salvador. End the illegal embargo against Cuba and . . .’
People approached her, she stepped forward, she began to speak, they passed her, she stopped, she waited for the next person. If there was a long enough lull she would pound her hands vigorously against the arms of the plaid wool coat that she had purchased at the Salvation Army and she would squat up and down to invigorate the muscles of her legs. Then someone would approach and she would right herself quickly.
‘US imperialist . . .’
I observed all of this action through the supermarket window and I willed the passers-by to buy the Militant from my mother. Maybe this person will, I thought. Maybe that other person will. I willed a thousand Militants to be bought, ten thousand, one million. I willed the patrons of the supermarket to join the Socialist Workers Party, to become comrades, to become us, to fight for the revolution.
I am one of you, the proud, sad expression on my mother’s face seemed to say. I understand you, your misery. While other white people have either ignored you or derided you, I have come out on a Sunday morning to stand in the cold in front of your supermarket to help you.
And one by one the endless stream of poor blacks passed by without so much as a second glance.
We were destined to be on the outside, my mother and I. But it didn’t matter because we were we. We would always have we and that was warm and soft. There might
not be one million behind us now, but we had each other, and we had the other comrades and we had Trotsky and Lenin and Marx and the Russian revolution, and we had the right ideas, and we knew that one day we would triumph.
‘What’s this for?’ a little black girl my age asked me. She was dressed for church in a pretty pink dress and a matching flowery pink hat.
‘It’s for socialism,’ I said.
‘Oh,’ she said, as if she had been expecting to hear that. And then she took the brochure from me and very carefully folded it in half and then in half again and elegantly placed it inside her purse.
‘Now I have something to put in my new purse,’ she said.
My father wants me to buy a copy of the Militant. I don’t want to buy it.
‘I guess I should buy this,’ I say.
‘Now your perspective will be broadened,’ he says happily.
I take out my wallet and remove a dollar.
‘The coal strike is in an anthracite region. Do you know what anthracite is?’ He takes my dollar and then he lowers his voice and leans towards me conspiratorially. ‘On the surface this strike is about wages and the right to organize. But what is it really about?’
‘I don’t know, Pop.’
He takes a breath and says with great conviction: ‘It is about human dignity.’ Each word is emphasized. Then he pauses and looks me dead in the eye as if anticipating that human dignity might be a subject of some controversy for me and that he is prepared to defend it. I think briefly about responding, ‘I’m actually opposed to human dignity, Pop.’
‘We’re having our subscription-fund drive now. Maybe you want to think about buying a subscription. We have a twelve-issue introductory rate.’
‘How much is that, Pop?’
‘I guess I should buy that.’
My father takes four more dollars from me, pulls an empty envelope out of his knapsack, marks down my name on it, and then places my money inside.
The waitress arrives at our table. ‘Would you like to hear tonight’s specials?’
My father quickly zips up his knapsack and says, ‘I’m afraid there’s been a mistake.’
‘Yes, a mistake.’ My father looks at the troublesome carafe of Chardonnay hoping the waitress will intuit the problem. ‘What I really meant to ask for,’ then he laughs shyly, a little-boy laugh, ‘what I really wanted was red wine.’
‘I am very sorry,’ my father says with genuine feeling.
‘Would you by any chance have Zinfandel?’
And the waitress swiftly removes the carafe of Chardonnay.
One of the benchmarks for being a good member of the Socialist Workers Party is the willingness to open your home to comrades who might be travelling to New York City to help out with a campaign, or to give a speech, or to teach a class. Communists should have no sentimental attachment to homes – they provide shelter – and like everything else they are good only as long as they are useful. On one such occasion, when I was four years old, my mother allowed a man to stay with us for a few days while he helped to renovate the Party headquarters.
‘After the revolution people will be able to live wherever they want to live,’ my mother told me. ‘Private property will be a thing of the past.’
Such hospitality would no doubt have been looked upon favourably by my father. Perhaps my mother thought that someone might even mention to him in passing, offhandedly, ‘Martha has let so-and-so comrade stay with her.’ And that my father upon hearing the good news would realize how committed and dedicated a revolutionary my mother was and that he could no longer live without her. In the dead of some night she would find my father standing outside our front door, his face wet with tears, his hands clenched, asking, imploring, to be let back in her life.
Our house guest had a wide, friendly face and a huge head of red hair that made him look to my four-year-old eyes something akin to a lumberjack. I told him so and it made him shake with deep laughter. On the first evening, in order to repay my mother for the kindness she had shown in opening her home to him (although such sacrifice was of course done selflessly) he repaired a lamp of ours that had been broken for a very long time.
I watched him repair it.
‘First I’m going to make sure it’s unplugged,’ he said to me patiently.
I was even allowed to hand him some of the tools, but my hands were so small that the tools clattered to the floor in the middle of the exchange. My mother and
the guest found this delightful.
When the man was finished tinkering he turned the switch and the room was filled with light.
‘Look! How wonderful,’ my mother said.
On the second evening we all sat down together for dinner. This was unusual for me as no man had ever eaten with us before. I was awed by the enormous amount that he was able to consume. He was also very gracious and he would ask for the salt politely and pass the butter if you needed it and he complimented my mother’s cooking and said that I was such a good boy.
On the third and last evening the man offered to babysit me so that my mother would be able to attend a forum the Party was having on Trotsky and the Fourth
No. My mother couldn’t possibly ask that of the man.
It was no bother for him.
Was he sure?
Sure he was sure.
She’d be home by eleven.
Take your time.
Very nice of you.
And then my mother kissed me on the head, told me to behave, picked up her bag and closed the door behind her, shutting me inside, alone with a man whom she did not know except insofar as he was a revolutionary – and therefore a friend. A comrade.
I was happy to play with the stranger. I became a monster chasing him around the living room.
‘I’m so afraid,’ the man said, fleeing from me, then cowering behind a chair. I was gleeful at his feigned terror.
My mother was blocks away now, descending the steps to the subway, fumbling in her bag for the token, dropping it in the turnstile, pushing through, looking down the empty tracks, wondering how long the train would take.
‘The hideous monster is coming to get me.’
My giggles filled the apartment as the subway arrived, as my mother entered, took a seat, folded her legs, took out something to read, rocked on the train as it hurtled underground towards Manhattan.
Then the man became the monster and did what my mother could not do so easily, stooping down to pick me up and swing me over his shoulder. His power thrilled me.
‘The monster has caught you. The monster has caught you.’
‘The monster has caught me.’ Laughing. Laughing.
And then my mother’s stop arrived, and she exited the subway and walked outside and around the corner on to Broadway and up the stairs to the Socialist Workers
Party headquarters and greeted everyone and made sure to comment on how the renovation showed the power of the communist movement in America and got a cup of coffee and took her seat.
And meanwhile the man’s hands were tickling me under my arms, and then beneath my shirt, and then on my calves.
‘You’re laughing too much,’ the man said playfully. And his mock entreaties of course made me laugh even more.
His hands travelled up towards my knees, then past my knees.
‘Stop laughing. No more laughing.’
I squealed in his grasp.
‘If you keep laughing you’re going to make yourself sick.’
Then on my thighs, then higher.
And as I squirmed to free myself from his strong arms, and as my mother took her seat and patiently waited for the speaker to approach the podium, the comrade put his hands in my pants and gently ran his fingers over and around my dick and balls sending a shockwave coursing through my four-year-old body.
‘Comrades, thank you all for coming,’ the speaker intoned, adjusting the microphone. And my mother, having had the presence of mind to have brought a pad and pen, removed them from her purse and began to take notes. ‘Trotsky and the Fourth International,’ she wrote in large letters at the top.
‘You’re sick,’ the man said with playful banter. ‘You’ve made yourself sick. The doctor is now going to have to perform an important operation.’
Then he unzipped his pants.
The waitress appears at our table. She has a tremulous look on her face and in her hand she is gripping the very same carafe filled to the brim with Chardonnay.
‘I am sorry,’ she says to my father, ‘but we are unable to exchange this.’
My father leans in and stares at her as the words register, and then snickers as if he has just been let in on a good joke.
‘I am sorry,’ the waitress repeats hopefully, ‘because the bottle was opened, you understand, the bartender won’t be able to re-sell this.’
‘Re-sell,’ my father luxuriates in the word.
The waitress smiles a reasonable smile, a no-hard-feelings smile. My father looks toward me thoughtfully as if I might intercede, then he nods his head once, twice, tucks his chin against his chest as if he were about to take a nap – then quickly looks up at the waitress.
‘Bring the manager,’ my father says.
The waitress looks nonplussed. The manager? It has suddenly, unexpectedly come to this. She hesitates for a moment and then hurries off, carafe in hand, the
Chardonnay sloshing dangerously, violently in its container. My father looks at her ass and then at me.
‘Do you see?’ he says to me, his eyes flashing in anger as if I’ve participated in committing a crime. Then with great sympathy he reverses: ‘They put her in a bad situation.’ Then to himself, sadly: ‘What is it to them?’
There’s a dead, awkward silence after this. We watch a couple being seated a few tables away. My father fingers the daisy in the vase and asks, ‘Is this real?’ We adjust and readjust the silverware.
‘Do you know about the history of this Garment District?’ my father finally says as an ice-breaker.
‘Not really,’ I say.
‘Women,’ he says. ‘Poor women.’
The Socialist Workers Party headquarters happens to be located in the heart of the Garment District, only a few blocks from where my father and I now sit. Yearsbefore the headquarters occupied an entire building on Charles Street overlooking the Hudson River in Greenwich Village, where the party churned out books, pamphlets and the Militant. In the late 1980s the party managed to raise $125,000 and commission eighty artists from twenty countries to paint a giant mural covering the side of the building, six storeys high. There were colourful portraits of all the major revolutionaries, Malcolm X, Rosa Luxemburg, Eugene Debs, Che Guevara, Marx, Engels, everyone imaginable (except Stalin and Mao), all floating over an enormous printing press dispensing rolls of newsprint with Castro’s famous maxim, ‘The truth must not only be the truth; it must also be told.’
The mural was a huge achievement for the Socialist Workers Party. It was covered every week in the Militant for months prior to its completion, and when it was finally unveiled it was heralded as an accomplishment that had been born of the Nicaraguan Revolution.
But the planners had planned poorly, and less than eight years later the colours were fading and the paint was peeling and the brick wall was discovered to have stress cracks and needed to be completely replaced before the entire building itself was compromised and demolished. So another hundred thousand dollars was raised and the faces of Malcolm and Karl and Che were pulled out brick by brick. This, too, was covered for weeks in the Militant, and somehow also celebrated as an accomplishment of sorts until no trace of the mural remained. It was replaced instead by a huge pink-coloured plastic siding.
‘Have you read The History of the Russian Revolution?‘ my father asks me.
‘I haven’t read that, Pop.’
‘Trotsky writes about how the revolution began with the seamstresses. Do you have a copy? Next time I’ll bring you a copy. Don’t start with chapter one. Start with chapter six.’ And as if reciting poetry, he says, ‘The struggles of the seamstresses are like rising suns for the world to see.’
My father knows nothing about the history of seamstresses, of course. He’s never read a book about them, or seen a film, or gone to the library to look up an article. He just knows implicitly. Lack of knowledge, however, is not a deterrent for him. My father will often hold forth on the largest of subjects: the social evolution of human beings since Homo habilis, the materialist underpinnings of ancient civilization, the French Revolution. The subjects he chooses are so vast, so breathtaking, that you could fail to realize how hollow the information is that he imparts. Try mentioning, for instance, the artificial divisions imposed on the Arab world after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and he will stare back at you blankly. But he can speak about imperialist oppression of the Middle East in general terms with great verve and for many hours. It’s his job. He is a socialist missionary among proletariat savages and every discussion presents itself as a possible opportunity for conversion. It doesn’t matter if he himself knows the intimate details of the topics he expounds on, his concern is with truth. He has heard things said by comrades about the seamstresses who have heard things said by other comrades, and he can understand that they are more than likely correct, that they do not demand a major reordering of the world as he perceives it. Beyond this hearsay, though, he has never ventured independently. Such exploration would be redundant and an egregious waste of time.
My mother’s bookcase did indeed contain a copy of The History of the Russian Revolution. I never read it though. There were also books by Lenin, Marx and Engels, as well as by leading members of the Socialist Workers Party, Farrell Dobbs, James P. Cannon, Jack Barnes. Those I never read either. Nor had I read The Origins of Materialism, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Empiricism and its Evolution: A Marxist View, The First Five Years of the Communist International, The First Ten Years of American Communism or Defense Policies and Principles of the Socialist Workers Party. I would, however, look at the titles when I played with my toys on the floor and wonder what they meant and what was inside. When I opened them to see if there might be pictures to entertain me, I discovered that the covers, the spines, the pages were still stiff and fresh. The books had never been opened by my mother. The titles were all you needed to know.
The restaurant manager appears. He is Indian. He wears very thick glasses and a white shirt that has remained brilliantly clean and which must indicate to my father how little the man labours. Behind him stands the waitress, who could have been a school girl visiting the principal’s office with her father. She is clutching the carafe of Chardonnay by the neck as if it’s a chicken she’s chosen to strangle for supper. The manager squeezes a managerial smile out of his face. It is obvious he is the one who has issued the dictum and is now prepared to stand behind it in the most diplomatic of ways.
‘Because, you understand,’ he embarks, ‘the bartender had to open the bottle of wine in order to pour . . .’
‘Okay,’ my father says, dismissing the finer points of the argument with a wave of his hand, ‘then I tell you what we do. This is what we do. I tell you. You bring us the cheque for the wine. We pay for the wine. And then we go.’
It’s a deft bargaining strategy on my father’s behalf.
‘Perhaps you would also care to order dinner?’ The manager presses his luck.
My father smiles.
‘Would you like to hear the specials?’ the waitress offers.
And in response my father calmly reiterates the game plan: ‘The cheque. We pay. Then we go.’
Every Friday and Sunday night of every week of my childhood were reserved expressly for the Socialist Workers Party. On Friday nights a forum was held that was open to the public, where Party members or an invited guest would speak about the Vietnam War, abortion rights, affirmative action . . . Sunday nights were meetings for comrades only which pertained to the management and strategy of the Socialist Workers Party itself. This is not to imply that these were the only evenings of political activity. There were also ‘plant-gate sales’, which meant selling the Militant at the gates of factories and mills during shift changes; ‘paste-ups’, which entailed illegally pasting posters of upcoming events on walls and lamp posts – done late at night to avoid being spotted by the police; the occasional party to celebrate an accomplishment of some sort; conferences; rallies, etc.
These Friday and Sunday night meetings bored me. I would sit beside my mother not understanding what the speaker was saying and only able to follow the cadence of the voice as if I was watching a film in a foreign language. I became adept at knowing when a speech was reaching its climax or when applause was being elicited or when a comrade’s question to the speaker was opening up an entire new path of discussion. I was ill-equipped for these meetings. I once fell off a row of folding chairs while asleep. Another time I inexplicably shouted out ‘nay’ during a voice vote, embarrassing myself and my mother. My mother would confine me to the backrooms where I would pass the time by playing with various office supplies, paper clips, staplers, once even painting my fingernails and toenails using a bottle of WiteOut. If there were pre-meeting doughnuts I would find them and gorge myself. I also complained heavily to my mother about the late night, interminable subway rides home. So beginning around the age of six, my mother concluded that it was better to leave me home alone while she attended these meetings.
The solitude of home was not preferable to the ennui of the forums and branch meetings. I was frightened by everything, by the plunks and clinks of the building,by the sound of footsteps in the hallway, by the thought that my mother might not return at all this time. Shadows cast by furniture hid lurking men, car headlights reflecting on the walls were flames, sounds of a neighbour’s toilet flushing was the doorknob being jiggled, a fly was a cockroach, a cockroach was a rat. My mother had posted the number of the meeting hall by the phone in case of emergency, which served only as a constant flashing reminder that danger was an ever-present possibility and that I would be helpless in the face of it. Everything I did while she was off went toward constructing an alternate reality. The stories I read were expunged of conflict, the games I invented were of the lightest fare of the happiest people of the brightest colours, the stuff of contemporary Christian plots. The power of these modes of entertainment to distract me was temporary and the only thing that kept the terror in check was our thirteen-inch black and white television set. This was forbidden to me except for special occasions, but in my mother’s absence I would linger for hours in front of it, counting among my many friends the Jeffersons, the Bunkers and the Flintstones. Programmes were replaced by hour-long dramas which unsettled me with their darker scenarios. I am speaking about programmes like The Incredible Hulk or Fantasy Island or That’s Incredible!, in which I once watched a man, in the interest of science, dive into a swimming pool with twenty-pound weights attached to his wrists and ankles so that researchers could monitor the effects of drowning on a human being. I was petrified by this nightmarish content, but I would forego my bedtime and continue watching. The television set, no matter how terrifying it might become, was always a more palatable alternative than the reality that encircled me, waiting for a moment’s silence to rush in.
At some point, however, my mother began to realize the unhealthy aspects of such excessive television watching. It would destroy my mind, she told me, my intellect. It would turn my brain to mush. ‘It’s a boob tube,’ she’d say. I was instructed to read or draw while she was gone. I protested. She insisted. I disobeyed. She demanded. I would open a book and pretend to be engrossed as she readied herself to depart, but as soon as she was out of earshot I would turn the television on. She caught on to this, tiptoeing back up the stairwell and pressing her ear against the door. If I denied my crime she would feel the back of the set as if checking a feverish forehead.
‘Why is it hot?’
‘The light from the lamp must have made it hot.’
She tried being angry with me, but I could not be swayed by admonishment. She would affect disappointment, hoping that would appeal to my conscience. It did not.
One day she discovered that she could remove the electrical cord from the back of the television set. Now, an hour or two before leaving, she would unplug the cord and hide it. This did not elicit the effect she desired, either. As soon as she had gone I would begin to search for the missing cord. It was not as bad as you might think. The search kept me occupied, I was able to fix my mind on a goal and pursue it with relentless fervour. Everything became about finding the cord. Loneliness, sadness, anger, fright were all submerged. It was an attainable goal, too, the cord was somewhere within the confines of our tiny apartment, and although there were quite a number of places of where it might be, the options nonetheless were finite. I rifled through everything like a seasoned burglar: her underpants drawer, her bra drawer, her diary drawer, her jar of keepsakes. Nothing was sacred. I always found the cord in the end.
Years of treasure hunts went by. Five years, twice, sometimes three times a week. I evolved out of dread at my mother’s departures and found myself looking forward to them as opportunities to indulge in the terrible elixir of situation comedy. I would plot my viewing days in advance. If for some reason or other a meeting had been cancelled or rescheduled and my mother stayed home I would lapse into terrible disappointment and frustration. Eventually my mother had removed the cord so many times that it no longer stayed firmly connected to the set, but would, in the middle of a programme, fall straight out of the back. The flood of silent reality would propel me from my chair like a sprinter at the gun. The more I pushed the cord into the set the more compromised it became. In the end I came to some well-reasoned childish conclusion that wetting the end of the cord would cause it to stick firmly in place. So with the electrical cord still plugged into the wall I would put my mouth on the end of it and lick it, then lick it again, then push it into the television set.
Then one Sunday evening when I was about ten years old, I watched in horror as my mother, in the sombre ritual of a robbed priest at mass, unplugged the cord from the socket, removed it from the back of the television set, opened her purse, placed it inside and left for her meeting. I listened to the key turn in the lock and then heard her footsteps in the hallway, down the stairs, clip clip clip, and then gone. The battle was over. My mother had won. The night stretched before me. My defeat was my imprisonment. A life sentence. In an apartment somewhere above a dog barked. The bark was a woman’s scream.
The Chardonnay conflict has been resolved amicably. The waitress has arrived at our table holding a carafe of blood-red wine and silently pours it like a defeated soldier being forced to serve the enemy-king. My father watches the glasses fill with Zinfandel with a contrite look on his face, as if to assure her that despite his victory he will not gloat. I imagine my father hungrily fucking her later, full of apology.
‘Look how she fills the glasses all the way to the top,’ my father says, imagining this to be some sort of an accomplishment by the waitress. The waitress smiles meekly.
‘Some people say the glass is half full,’ my father presses, ‘but when it is wine it should always be filled to the top.’
She reads the specials in an automatic voice, like a bored weather forecaster telling us that there’s a chance it might rain tomorrow. The dishes have Persian names. I bury my head in the menu pretending to be considering the full range of options. The foods are all unfamiliar. I feel as if I should know them, that I’ve been handed a test that I had ample warning of yet still find myself unprepared for. My father listens to the waitress intently, repeats back for clarification, asks if this thing has eggplant, if the other thing is fried. He orders for both of us. He says thank you a lot, smiles, bats his eyelashes. Asks for extra rice and a side of onions, if it’s not too much trouble. He takes a long look at her ass when she walks off.
‘A toast to your belated birthday,’ my father says, and raises his glass.
I raise mine.
‘To the young man.’
‘I don’t feel like a young man,’ I say.
‘That’s the contradiction,’ he says. ‘I don’t feel like an old man.’
Then my father spills the red wine down his shirt.
Three blocks from where my mother and I lived was a pizza shop called ‘Uncle Charlie’s’. It was a losing proposition. Every few years it was sold by one sucker to another. It was a small dim place with a video game and a pinball machine. The pinball machine appealed to a previous generation to which I did not belong. The video game, however, was always crowded with boys eagerly watching the action like gamblers at a cockfight. Some afternoons I would insinuate myself among the older, stronger boys and watch them play. There was a masculinity to what they could accomplish, deftly reaching levels the younger boys could only hope to aspire to, while enduring an inhuman amount of pandemonium as the machine worked to separate the player from the quarter he had inserted.
I was horrible at the game. I never fully understood the rules. I panicked quickly under pressure. I was too deliberate at aiming at the enemy spaceships. I’d exhaust my precious ‘smart bombs’ almost immediately, like a junkie unable to preserve their stash. As the game progressed, everything moved faster and faster including my own plane. I’d fly through outerspace like a drunk driver, careening from top to bottom. There was relief when it was over, like returning to the waking world from a bad dream. Then I would step back and let the older boys take the reins.
The night my mother left with the television cord, it occurred to me that,unlike a prisoner, I was free to go to Uncle Charlie’s if I wanted. I had a dollar bill that I had come by somehow. I withdrew it from my dresser drawer and looked at it. What evidence would there be that I had ever left the apartment? Not a trace. I visualized myself out in the city streets, walking. The thought of it unsettled me. There was something clandestine about the act, something akin to thievery.
Uncle Charlie’s was then owned by an overweight Jewish man with black hair and bushy eyebrows whose name was Joel, but whom everyone called Charlie. He was eating a slice of pizza when I entered. (I envied the endless supply of pizza that was afforded him.) The place was empty. The floor had been swept clean, the small tables cleared of debris. The clock on the wall read 8.50. I was prepared for him to ask why I was out so late, but he did not. With uninterest he gave me four quarters for my dollar. I dropped a coin through the slot of the game, there was a loud beep as the box ingested it and then came to life with swirling lights and sounds. The machine beat out its drum-drum music as the enemy spacecraft flew in to attack. I fired at them, bullet after bullet and the spaceships disintegrated on impact. It was satisfying to destroy.
In my mind as I played, I began to play a different game. I imagined my spaceship was a communist spaceship and the enemy spaceships were the spaceships of the capitalists. The stakes of this duel energized me. On level one, I soundly defeated capitalism. And on level two as well. And then on three. As each subsequent level of the video game appeared on the screen, all who I had killed before reappeared to be killed again, and each time there were more of them and they were faster and more resilient, and each time I was up to the task. On and on I went. I thought of the older boys and their video-game athleticism and I wondered what they would think of me now. My left hand ached from gripping the joystick and the tips of the fingers on my right hand pounded away furiously at the yellow button that dispensed my bullets. My weapons were the weapons of Marx, Engels and Trotsky, and the ships that came to kill me were piloted by Rockefeller, Reagan, Carnegie, the ‘rich asses’, Uncle Charlie himself. Eventually there was no chance whatsoever, the speed of the machine had grown exponentially, and in the middle of an impossible number of capitalist spaceships I went down in flames.
I stood at the machine dazed, spent, watching as it ranked me and invited me to put in my three initials. I had three quarters left. It was 9.20. There was plenty of time remaining in the night. I put another one of my quarters in. I made a careless mistake and was killed on the first screen. It was 9.22.1 put another quarter in. I was killed on the second screen. I slapped the side of the machine.
‘Hey!’ Uncle Charlie cried out.
I put in another quarter. I played with resignation, with defeat. An insult to the machine. ‘If I lose, I lose because I do not even care enough about you to try to win.’ I lost. I had no more quarters. I looked at the floor for a possible stray. The floor had been swept clean. I was humiliated by my need. I felt sudden rage at the boys who always seemed to be in possession of an endless supply of quarters. The rage was replaced by sadness. It would be a long time before I came by another dollar. I wanted it back. I wanted to undo it. I caught a glimpse of my face in the glass of the machine. I looked gaunt, depraved, my eyes were bloodshot.
As I left I kept my head down to avoid making eye contact with Uncle Charlie. There wasn’t a soul on the street. I realized suddenly how odd it was for a little boy to be outside in the streets alone at this time of night. I was like someone who has ventured far out into a driving rainstorm before realizing that it is in fact a hurricane. I took the long, most well-lit way home. I walked slowly, hoping to affect an air of nonchalance that might dissuade a predator. A man approached me from the opposite direction, then passed. I entered my apartment building with great relief and walked the two flights of stairs to my floor. Perhaps my mother’s meeting had let out early and she was now home, frightened, irritated, waiting to chastise me for my senselessness. I opened the door and the stillness of the apartment washed over me.
On a shelf in the bookcase my mother kept a little, brown, sugar jar in which she used to store sugar. It was always filled with coins and crumpled-up bills. When I first discovered the jar it seemed miraculous to me. I had always come to associate the jar and the money with my father. Perhaps the jar itself had actually once belonged to him and so I imagined that the money in the jar was his too and that he had given it to my mother as a sort of one time alimony payment when he left. That night I unscrewed the lid and took out a dollar. I felt I was crossing an invisible barrier, but I did not recognize the boy crossing it.
I went out again, this time without deliberation. The novelty of the experience had worn off, it seemed old hat now. It was dark, but I was not frightened by the darkness. Charlie was noisily sipping a Coke through a straw when I entered. He didn’t ask how I had come by another dollar. He gave me change. I played hard, I lost quickly. The quarters were gone. The clock read 10.12. There was a pinching in my elbow from the strain of clutching the joystick. I wanted to crush something in my hands. I badly needed to pee and the sensation incited me. I thought briefly about tearing my shirt off, thinking there would be some satisfaction in that. I looked at my shoes. They seemed too large, and my hands too thin.
The short cut to my home was through an alleyway. It was jet black, but as a punishment for having spent and for having lost, I walked through it anyway. There was a recklessness to the act which I deserved. I fantasized about being accosted by the shadows. I had homework to do, but it was too late to do it now. I had wasted the night. I wanted the night back. The only thing that could alleviate this discomfort, that could redeem me, that could let me pee, was to play the video game again. I entered the apartment. The stillness. I did not hesitate, I went straight for the sugar jar. I unscrewed it. The stranger took out a five-dollar bill.
It’s nearly midnight when we leave Colbeh. There’s a nice mist covering everything, softening the streets and the buildings. It’s quiet. We pass an old-fashioned gaslight.
‘That is very nice looking,’ my father says.
‘It’s real nice, Pop.’
‘When I was a boy in Iran we never had gaslights. Iran went directly from no light to electric lights. That is the kind of thing that happens in a backward country. The Law of Combined and Uneven Development.’
‘What’s that, Pop?’
‘The Law of Combined and Uneven Development. Trotsky talks about it. Two countries, one that exploits and the other that, you know. There are things that develOPED unevenly. But combined. Trotsky talks about it . . .’ He trails off.
We walk in silence. The streets are empty. Cars pass us softly. I think about how ironic it is that someone who stresses the importance of history is so woefully and wilfully ignorant of his own son’s. My mother, for instance, never told my father what transpired that night she left me alone with the travelling comrade. It strikes me as a crime rantamount to the crime itself. The truth must not only be the truth, it must also be told. It never occurred to my mother that this might be news worth passing on to my father. Or perhaps she thought that such an unseemly development would make our home less inviting were he ever to consider returning. When she called Party headquarters and told them what the comrade had done to me she was told, ‘Under capitalism everyone has problems.’ And it was left at that. Such an explanation, which my father no doubt would have heartily endorsed, was apparently sufficient for her. It was never mentioned in our home again. Life was miserable, of course, and there was no use fighting against each and every indignity that we encountered. It was up to each of us to bear those personal miseries ourselves, until that glorious day in the future when it would all be resolved once and for all.
My father and I come out on to Eighth Avenue and into the crush of the world. The subway station looms before us. He stops and stands in front of me, the splotch of red wine, now dried, running like a birthmark across his chest. He holds out his hand. We shake like friendly acquaintances. Then he pulls me to him suddenly and hugs me awkwardly, slightly off centre, my chest pressing into his elbow, a vague approximation of an embrace.
‘It’s been nice walking with you,’ he says.
There hadn’t been many walks and there wouldn’t be many more. Our lives together had not existed. He was my father in fact only, a biological father, but besides the genes there was nothing really, no past, no memory, only our very own personal combined and uneven development.
‘Be good,’ he says.
The A train is empty except for a few people. I sit across from a black man wearing construction boots and covered in a fine grey dust. He watches me closely as I unfold the Militant. Two thoughts of equal import appear in my brain simultaneously. One thought is that I will be hailed by him for being a liberator, one who understands his plight and the plight of all those who labour. The other thought is that he is an informant for the government.
I read an article about some recent developments in Haiti. The reporting is similar to an article I came across about a week earlier in the New York Times. I realize that most of the information has been culled from the Times and rewritten with a Marxist bent. The word American has been replaced throughout with the word imperialist. ‘The imperialist troops entered the capital . . .’ ‘The imperialist government stated that . . .’ Some background history has been added, and some references to the Cuban Revolution. The article concludes by saying that real change can only come about in Haiti if the working class makes change in the form of a socialist revolution. The photograph of angry demonstrators burning tyres in the centre of the street is credited to Getty Images.
The A train stops at West Fourth and the black man stands and exits. I watch him walk away. His trousers are fraying and he has a slight limp, a hitch in his step that causes him to lean to the left. The doors close and the train begins to pull out of the station, passing the man, paused at the foot of the stairs, resting against the railing, summoning his strength before he attempts the ascent. Socialism will save you. I look down at the Militant and I am suddenly struck by how much it resembles a high-school newspaper. The type is a bit too big, the photos too grainy, and the whole thing is only several pages thick. You can feel an earnestness behind the effort, a diligence that doesn’t quite live up to the size of its ideas. It’s a newspaper aspiring to be a newspaper aspiring to world revolution.
There is an article about the latest eight-week subscription drive. I study the table that has been provided to show the drive’s weekly progress. The goal for the entire United States is to sell 1,000 subscriptions. That is to say that out of a possible 300 million people the Socialist Workers Party hopes to sell 1,000 subscriptions. Out of eight million people in New York City the goal is listed at one hundred, of which seventeen subscriptions have already been sold. There are five more weeks to go. They will make their goal, of course. They always do. There is always the extraordinary distance to reach, the insurmountable odds that can only be overcome by a disciplined, fighting cadre. There are always the articles, every week, that chronicle how many subscriptions have been sold, how many still need to be sold and what it reflects about the overall class-consciousness of workers in the United States. There are the editorials that urge on the comrades to sell and sell. Then there is the blazing headline that heralds a miracle in the eleventh hour. As a little boy I had dreamed of those goals being met. We were always just one more subscription away, one more brochure, one more Militant, one more book. All we needed was that one more thing and we would win, the revolution would come. It always resolved itself the same way and in a few weeks there would be another subscription drive and we would begin again.
I realize I have now become the eighteenth subscription for New York City.
Image © Rob Hurson