The Associated Press ran an item about a year ago concerning a woman in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood who paid, at auction, $560,000 for two parking spots. Those two parking spots were not even spots in a garage. When she was asked why she paid so much for them, she said that they would “come in handy for guests and workers.”
In other words we’ve now reached a point in our country’s history – or, for scholars of the Gilded Age, we’ve returned to a point in our history -- in which it’s not considered obscene, or even that noteworthy (this was a tiny news story that I just happened to catch) that someone near the top of our economic pyramid could casually spend vastly more on providing a parking space for one of her workers than that worker could hope to earn in salary over the course of a year.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Uh-oh: sounds like Jim’s gearing up to rabble-rouse. I thought this was going to be an essay on literature. Turns out, I’m going to be arguing, the two are related.
Every time Barack Obama, despite his I’m-only-talking-and-I-don’t-intend-to-do-anything-about-it way of operating, has been willing to even remark on the increasingly inequitable distribution of our national wealth, his opponents immediately and fiercely have accused him of being a socialist, which our mainstream media treats as a term the way it treats pedophile. A socialist is understood to be a wild-eyed anarchist who is mostly interested in fomenting class warfare. That, of course, describes Barack Obama to a T. Which is why so many of the CEO’s whose criminal activity helped generate the 2008 financial meltdown are sitting in jail right now.
The term underprivileged, in American national mythology, means someone whose upward mobility will simply be all the more inspiring, provided, of course, they’re willing to put in the hard work. If you dare to suggest otherwise – if you suggest that the game might be rigged for some people and against some others – you are not understood, in America, to be a reformer; you are understood to be a demagogue. And a demagogue in America is somehow simultaneously a non-serious person and a dangerous person. As Helder Camara, a Brazilian Catholic liberation theologian, put it: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
But what the ruling class has made increasingly clear, especially since 2008, is that it’s not only aware of the concept of class warfare, but it’s waging it, and successfully. And the ruling class has figured out that you can be much more effective in a war if you can keep the other side from even realizing that it’s under attack.
Therefore when engaging in class warfare it’s probably wise not to talk about it. This enforced silence is an important aspect of America to figure out, not least because so many people seem to have resisted doing so. Our politicians, for example, always want to treat talk as though it’s identical to action, for obvious reasons. They can say that America is all about equal opportunity, and then work to make sure that the opposite is true. John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s Attorney General, in what may have been his only moment of pitying compassion for the press, tried to clarify the way that disjunction was central to the American power structure this way, way back in 1972, for those poor reporters who still didn’t get it. Mitchell told them, “Don’t watch what we say; watch what we do.”
Last year a battalion of reviewers, in the hullabaloo surrounding the publication of Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Americanah, congratulated it for among other things confronting America’s taboos when it comes to talking about race. We in America have more taboos than we think and god knows that talking about race is one of them. But talking about class: well, that may be even more forbidden. And the reason for that might not be so hard to figure out. Many people thought that they’d never see a black President in America. To that extent, America surprised them. But here’s a surprise America’s never going to spring on them: a President who comes out of, and whose agenda supports, the lower classes.
Class consciousness in American discourse is almost entirely funneled through the Horatio Alger myth that America has embraced so unwaveringly and so unself-consciously. That myth asserts that anyone, through dint of pluck and hard work and merit, can rise in America. What that myth absolutely does not allow for is the notion that American society has now become so unequal that a large minority, if not a majority, no longer has that opportunity to rise. And as the evidence of insurmountable and ever-increasing inequality becomes more and more difficult to ignore, it makes sense, then, that pop culture spectaculars like American Idol and all of their variations would be so embraced, since what they stage with as much fanfare as possible is the notion that you too can rise from the mass.
The pernicious downside of the Horatio Alger myth is familiar to anyone who’s listened to some of our Republican candidates express their contempt for, and hostility towards, the poor. If in America it’s true that anyone can make it through hard work and merit, then it becomes clear what we should think of those who haven’t made it.
And by the way, by singling out the Republicans, I don’t want to suggest that I think that the Democrats as a party are genuinely interested in the poor. For the most part they’re just at this point much less willing to publically express that lack of regard.
So what does all of this have to do with literature and/or Junot Diaz? Here’s where I’m going with all of this: given how fundamentally class shapes who we are, it’s notable that here in America even people who consider themselves compassionate tend to overlook the subject.
My students, for example. My students, at least, need to have the subject of class brought up, dragged into the seminar room, and pitched onto the floor in front of them. I teach at Williams College, which, like a lot of the most beneficial opportunities in this country, is reserved mostly for the elite. The academic elite, of course, but, as we know, the most likely way of entering the academic elite is to have enjoyed the advantages that accrue to members of the socioeconomic elite. So here’s an anecdote from Williams:
Some years ago one of my writing classes was hashing over a student story about star-crossed lovers. At one point I intervened to say that I thought it weird that we’d talked for however long about this story and hadn’t mentioned the issue of class. My students were puzzled. Why should they have mentioned the issue of class? Well, I said, the boy in the story was described as poor white trash, and the girl as the daughter of one of the richest men in the state. And one of the students, unimpressed with that information, said, “What’s that got to do with class?”
It turns out that because it’s such an inescapable issue for anyone interested in who we are now and what we’re becoming, the subject is more ubiquitous in our fiction than we would think. We may just be getting less adept at spotting it. Which is, of course, exactly what those who are gathering more wealth and power unto themselves at our expense would desire.
So that a story like, say, Junot Diaz’s “Edison, New Jersey,” that seems to be about issues of race, turns out to reveal those issues to be intricately bound up in -- if not defined by -- issues of class. And given that the protagonist is a young male, those issues of class turn out to be bound up in his most intimate sense of how he defines himself. And that, of course, has to do with his fluctuating sense of his own sexual power, or lack thereof, and his potential for sexual humiliation.
“The first time we try to deliver the Gold Crown,” our narrator, identified elsewhere as Junior (who Diaz renders as 'Yunior' in published interviews), begins by telling us, ”the lights are on in the house but no one lets us in.” Junior thereby lays out for us right off the bat what he and his pal Wayne consider to be their relationship to their society: the lights are on, all right, but no one’s letting them in. In fact, as far as they’re concerned, it gets worse: “I bang on the front door and Wayne hits the back and I can hear our double drum shaking the windows. Right then I have this feeling that someone is inside, laughing at us.”
That’s Junior’s paradigmatic feeling throughout the story, and it’s what mobilizes a lot of his rage – We’re on the outside looking in, and they’re laughing at us -- and it’s also what he uses to mobilize his self-pity, as well: Poor us: society rejects us and mocks us as inferior. And there is plenty of incontrovertible evidence that Junior and Wayne aren’t hugely respected. But Junior’s self-pity also has a very particular focus, when we consider just who it is that turns out to be not letting him into the house in this particular case.
“Edison, New Jersey,” like the collection in which it appears, Drown can be and has been characterized as belonging to that category of literature that’s become a much more ubiquitous part of college syllabi – multicultural literature – and it offers many of the features that we expect from multicultural literature. To list just a few: we’re introduced to a subcategory of cultural experience that we understand to have been marginalized; we’re treated to insider information about that subcategory; we see how difference, of the sort represented by that subcategory, is penalized by the majority culture; and we see how that difference is celebrated by the marginalized themselves. (That last feature usually takes the form of something like: Well, you may think that what my grandmother used to cook was unappetizing or weird, but I loved it.)
Sure enough, there are many moments throughout the story that Junior might organize under the heading of They don’t believe in us. He works delivering pool tables, and informs us that when it comes to his customers, most of whom are doctors, diplomats, surgeons, etc., “Most of them prepare for us by laying down a path of yesterday’s Washington Post from the front door to the game room.” Those homeowners might protest in their own defense that they’re just protecting their floors, but we understand what Junior’s getting at: it’s as if they don’t even want him touching those floors. He goes on to add:
"Sometimes the customer has to jet to the store for cat food or a newspaper while we’re in the middle of a job. I’m sure you’ll be all right, they say. They never sound too sure. Of course, I say. Just show us where the silver’s at. The customers ha-ha and we ha-ha and then they agonize over leaving, linger by the front door, trying to memorize everything they own, as if they don’t know where to find us, who we work for."
A large part of our pleasure with such passages comes not only from the acuity of Junior’s observational eye but also from the feelings of moral superiority that he invites us to share, as we assure ourselves that we would never act that way.
That world out there thinks of people like Junior, he tells us, as delinquent, even when it’s not his fault; and that’s why people like his boss, when he tries to explain himself, see fit to simply dismiss him.
The structures of that world oppress him, and another way he would put it, in keeping with his role as a standard multicultural protagonist, might be They keep us down. Again, these are the easiest patterns to track in the story, because these are the moments in which the story is doing what we would expect it to, given our developing sense of what it seems to want to be about. So that Junior each payday takes out the old calculator in order to “figure out how long it’d take me to buy a pool table honestly,” given how little he’s being paid, and discovers that the answer is “Two and a half years if I give up buying underwear and eat only pasta but even this figure’s bogus.”
The problem is – speaking of what we might be expecting a story like this to assert – that when it comes to the dominant culture that’s oppressing Junior, as he might put it, Their values are fucked. He makes that point persistently throughout the story’s length. Those customers who agonize over leaving him and Wayne alone in their house and linger by the front door trying to memorize everything they own: the nakedness of their very materialism is what allows Junior to manipulate them. When they insult him by laying down that newspaper for him to walk on, he makes them pick it all up, using, as he puts it, the threat of property damage to put the chop-chop in their step.
Standing in for the heedless upper class and its fucked-up value system is Pruitt, who we learn apparently has only pictures of himself in his room, has probably been to more countries than Junior knows the capitals for, and has provided his maid with just a bed, a dresser, and four hangers’ worth of clothes while he himself has a wardrobe that spills out onto chairs and a line of dress shoes that follows the far wall. And as the story progresses it begins to seem highly likely that he’s sexually exploiting his maid. Such people and the world they represent, Junior understands, justifies a fourth claim commonplace in this kind of fiction: They provide us no shelter. They hold the levers of power and insure that Wayne and Junior’s roles will be marginal. As Junior puts it:
"Pruitt. Most of our customers have names like this, court case names: Wooley, Maynard, Gass, Binder, but the people from my town, our names, you see on convicts or coupled together on boxing cards."
In this kind of story, then, in the face of all that, we expect, there will also be a competing and valorized set of priorities, about which Junior might say This is what I value instead. And sure enough, there’s plenty of that. On the very first page, while Wayne’s getting all exercised at the way they’re having their time wasted, and being dissed by whoever’s inside, Junior takes a more philosophical approach, and has little Zen moment:
"I walk over to the ditch that has been cut next to the road, a drainage pipe half filled with water, and sit down. I smoke and watch a mama duck and her three ducklings scavenge on the grassy bank and then float downstream like they’re on the same string. Beautiful, I say but Wayne doesn’t hear."
Those familiar with some of the patterns of multicultural literature will recognize the conceit. Junior has that ability – an ability that someone from a culture with a more fucked-up value system might no longer have – to stop and smell the flowers; to connect more fully with what’s vital, and real.
He also loves good old-fashioned craftsmanship:
"Yes, tables have bolts and staples on the rails but these suckers hold together mostly by gravity and by the precision of their construction. If you treat a good table right it will outlast you. Believe me. Cathedrals are built like that. There are Incan roads in the Andes that even today you couldn’t work a knife between two of the cobblestones. The sewers that the Romans built in Bath were so good that they weren’t replaced until the 1950s. That’s the sort of thing I can believe in."
Note the way both what Junior claims he values and the examples he cites quietly make the case for his equality. As in: Hey, those people in the Andes: they were every bit as accomplished at good old-fashioned hard work and quality engineering as the Romans. And by the way, you might want to rethink your presupposition that only white Protestants appreciate real quality, and that immigrants like Dominicans mostly like trashy shit.
It’s also not an accident that Junior’s previously described Zen moment involved a mama duck and her three ducklings so in sync it was like they were on the same string. Because although he doesn’t like to talk about it, what he’d reallylike for us to understand that he most values is love and connection. Halfway through the story, for example, he comprehends his mother’s pained wish that he would settle down (“Do you have anyone?” she asks me sometimes. Yes, I say.”) and understands her regret at the girl that got away. Because he feels that regret even more intensely than his mother does. And in his favorite memories, which involve his most idealized and romantic versions of himself, he and his girlfriend’s love was so immense and powerful that it swept aside those issues of class. The game he played with her in the mornings, he remembers, involved how he was going to deal with the likely litany of humiliations he would face that day, and he explains how it worked and how she helped him put such humiliations in perspective:
"I see an asshole customer, she murmured. Unbearable traffic. Wayne’s going to work slow. And then you’ll come home to me.
Will I get rich?
You’ll come home to me. That’s the best I can do. And then we’d kiss hungrily because this was how we loved each other."
That’s what I had, and that’s what I valued most, Junior would like us to believe. The pain of that loss, he would like us to understand, is the main thing he carries around.
He also displays for us insistently another value he cherishes: his fuck-you subversiveness or feistiness in the face of other people’s money and power. Sure, his customers may underestimate him, but he’s going to assert himself and reinscribe himself in those places that would try to efface him. He takes pains to catalog for us the various ways in which he makes himself at home in homes that don’t welcome him. He explores, he takes cookies and razors, he brazens out being caught wandering around, so that he can show us, Hey, I can be as relaxed in a rich person’s house as a rich person can. And he’s proud of the minor-league ballsy way he gets back at people who he thinks treat him particularly badly: he takes a dump in their toilet and leaves it behind for them.
So we note that those five claims that Junior implicitly or explicitly makes that I’ve summarized as They don’t believe in us, They keep us down, Their values are fucked, They provide us no shelter and This is what I value instead map out for us what we might call the expected terrain of the run-of-the-mill multicultural text.
But if we imagine -- and I think we should -- that compelling conflict in literature always involves equal or nearly equal values trying to occupy the same space at the same time, we begin to see the problem. The non-run-of-the-mill multicultural text is going to need to do more. A story of victimization and struggle against victimization can have enormous power and generate feelings of pity and outrage and sympathy, but won’t in and of itself generate in the reader powerfully conflicting feelings. Because in such cases we as readers know exactly what we want, and what to wish for: the injustice to be rectified, and the individual or the group’s value to be ratified. This is the equivalent of rooting for the tornado to miss the population center. The reader is reduced to the passive interpretive position of simply rooting for the characters to be dealt a better hand by implacable Fate. Or the author.
What’s happened in a case like that is that the fiction seems to have confused drama and conflict. A situation can be quite intensely dramatic and still quite one-sided. When we talk about a compelling central conflict, we’re talking about one the reader is at least initially fruitfully uncertain as to how to negotiate. And the proposition Should someone, because they’re an immigrant, be considered a second-class citizen doesn’t seem to fall into that category.
One of the achievements of “Edison, NJ” has to do with the way in which it reveals itself to have understood that distinction. It takes the Us vs. Them dichotomy that’s represented in those five claims summarized above – a dichotomy that’s so easy for the reader to negotiate, in terms of sympathies – and underpins and complicates each one of those claims with an enlarged understanding of the complexity of agency. Agency is something upon which I harp, when I teach, and agency has to do with the extent to which we act, and are responsible for the particular way in which events unfold, as opposed to the ways in which we are acted upon by the world.
Because it turns out that if this story, as far as Junior is concerned, is eloquent about the ways in which They don’t believe in us, it’s also eloquent about the ways in which We don’t believe in ourselves. The real heartbreak in this story, it turns out, is not how the world has let these characters down – since that’s really a given – but the various ways in which they’ve let each other down. Junior tells us that the boss keeps him when he’s not out on deliveries away from the pool tables and it’s “Only when he needs my Spanish will he let me help out on a sale.” But it also turns out that Junior’s response is to slouch behind the front register and steal, and, more importantly, to not tell Wayne when he does so. So much for having your buddy’s back.
And it’s not just They who are judging him, as far as Junior’s concerned. His visit to his ex-girlfriend’s house becomes a series of minor but painful humiliations:
"A month before the zángano, I went to her house, a friend visiting a friend, and her parents asked me how business was, as if I balanced the books or something. Business is outstanding, I said.
That’s really wonderful to hear, the father said.
He asked me to help him mow his lawn and while we were dribbling gas into the tank he offers me a job. A real one that you can build on. Utilities, he said, is nothing to be ashamed of."
And we note the way Junior’s answer (“Business is outstanding”) makes clear that he heard the judgment implied in the question, and we track the amount of controlled aggression there is in the exchange that follows: That’s really wonderful to hear. You betcha.
And we note too the way the change in verb tense underscores the intensity of that anger: “and while we were dribbling gas into the tank he offers me a job.” As in: you believe that? Which is confirmed by the father’s next two remarks: a real job, that you can build on. And one about which you don’t have to be ashamed.
But wait: it gets worse. Because the problem is not only that Junior’s own people are at times ashamed of him; he’s at times ashamed of himself. And at times he thinks he should be. Right after that passage, we encounter this:
"Later the parents went into the den to watch the Giants lose and she took me into her bathroom. She put on her makeup because we were going to a movie. If I had your eyelashes, I’d be famous, she told me. The Giants started losing real bad. I still love you, she said and I was embarrassed for the two of us, the way I’m embarrassed at those afternoon talk shows where broken couples and unhappy families let their hearts hang out. We’re friends, I said and Yes, she said, yes we are.
There wasn’t much space so I had to put my heels on the edge of the bathtub."
The passage is memorable mostly for its elisions, and what’s being left out are precisely those emotional transitions that would allow Junior to feel better about what’s happening here: that would make the sex they find themselves having less heedless, less about their own isolated needs, and so less pathetic feeling to him. The emotions on display in those afternoon talk shows are not just too honest and uninhibited, of course.
So Junior knows that it’s not just that They keep us down; it’s also that We keep ourselves down. He tells us that given what he’s paid, it would take him two and a half years of scrimping to afford a pool table. But that’s not the only reason he’ll never get one. The other reason is what he tells us at the end of that same paragraph: “Money’s never stuck to me, ever.” Well, that may have more to do with him. When he tells us about the way in which he used to take his girlfriend out and buy her anything she wanted, he’s not just establishing how much he loved her; he’s also letting us know that he tends to piss his money away.
Because it turns out that it’s not just that Their values are fucked; it also turns out that if Junior were being completely honest he’d also have to admit something like We’ve adopted their values. Pruitt is not the only materialist in the story. And is also not the only one who toys with exploitation.
So They provide us with no shelter, but We provide ourselves no shelter. And that seems to be the case even starting with Junior’s friendship with Wayne. He indicates to us early on that he realizes that if he’s going to get along with his pal, he’s going to have to accept his pal’s womanizing, even if he likes Wayne’s wife: “I don’t need a collision or a four-hour silent treatment so I try to forget that I think his wife is good people and ask him if Charlene’s given him any signals.”
And when he tells us how alienated he feels when he hears his customers’ court-case names, he immediately follows that by indicating that he’s nearly equally alienated from his best friend: when he and Wayne go to the Rio Diner, they “blow all the dough we have in our pockets. Wayne is talking about Charlene and I’m leaning my head against a thick pane of glass.”
He sees where Wayne is headed – he asks Wayne “And how’s it going with you and Charlene?” and Wayne answers “I don’t know, man,” and shakes his head, and “in that motion,” Junior tells us, “I see him out on his lawn with all of his things” – but he’s not going to do anything to try and stop it.
And why does the example of Wayne so discourage and depress him? Because it reminds him of somebody. Which brings us to the most important relationship in the story, which is Junior’s relationship with Pruitt’s maid. It’s not an accident that she’s not given a name.
And that brings us to what underpins that fifth claim he seems to be making -- This is what I value instead -- and that would be this: This is how I act.
The first six pages of the story work to set up Junior’s basic socioeconomic and romantic situation, and that he’s feeling powerless about both, and that he’s feeling even more unhappy about the latter than he is the former.
Given his claim of powerlessness, something has to come along to put pressure on his situation. That something begins with his discovery of just who has been locking him out, and possibly jerking him around. It’s a woman; a woman staring at him. He says, when he sees her, “Muñeca,” which translates, as those of us who’ve studied our Dominican Spanish slang know, as Doll. Remember my earlier claim that one of the pleasures we expect from multicultural literature is being treated to insider information. Consider how many different effects Diaz’s deployment of just that “Muñeca” has at that moment in the story. It establishes his authority: I guess he knows this world. It’s helpfully intimidating: I guess we don’t. We’re reminded of our outsider status, and our reliance on his greater knowledge. And without the translation he fails to provide, we can’t know that Junior’s first response upon seeing that woman in the house is to objectify her. Since he can’t mean doll in an affectionate way.
They stare at each other for only a second, which is not enough for Junior to even “notice the shape of her ears or if her lips were chapped.” But he does want us to know that he has “fallen in love on less.” Because Junior is about to conceive of himself as her rescuer, if not her rescuer/lover, and he wants to set that traditional romantic trope – with me, all it takes is one look – into motion in our minds.
It’s instructive how the sections that follow in the story are sequenced. Next we’re given his account of the way in which his girlfriend broke up with him. Then we’re informed about the way in which his girlfriend’s parents humiliated him. Then about the way in which his post-breakup sex with his girlfriend embarrassed him. Then his grim understanding of how long it’s going to take for him to get anywhere, in class terms. And then his being dressed down by first Pruitt, secondhand, and then by his boss, for the girl’s refusal to answer the door. His unmentioned name – Junior – is starting to seem more and more eloquent.
So he heads back to Pruitt’s house and bangs on the girl’s door with some vehemence. It turns out upon his confronting her that she’s instantly sexual and he’s apparently instantly affected:
"A bolt slides, a lock turns, the door opens. She stands in our way, wearing black shorts and a gloss of red on her lips and I’m sweating."
The syntax there suggests a causality that probably isn’t true – he was probably sweating before he saw her lips – but nevertheless, the connection stands.
On top of that, when, feeling put out, Junior demands to know if she remembers him, the girl says No. The outrage of which he tries to share with Wayne: “I look over at Wayne. Can you believe this?” It turns out Wayne can.
He orders her to hold the door, but then later, watching her wash dishes, he feels more conciliatory, and tries to strike up a conversation. He discovers they’re both Dominican. And that they share his attitude toward Pruitt: “She says, I didn’t answer the door because I wanted to piss him off.” He also discovers that she wants to be rescued: “I’ll pay you for a ride.”
Well, that works out nicely, since he’d already been starting to imagine himself as her rescuer. So then why does he respond to her offer by saying “I don’t think so”? Any old-fashioned rescuer could answer that question: heroes don’t take money. Heroes do it because they want to.
But there’s another reason, as well. Given his socioeconomic position, he’s pissed that she assumes that money will sway him. How do we know that he’s pissed? He tells us “I say in English that she should have her boss bring her but she stares at me blankly.” If we stop to imagine that moment we get a sense of just how assholish he’s being. They’re talking in Spanish. She asks if he can help her get away; he says no; she asks why that would be such a problem; and he says in English “Why don’t you have your boss take you?” As in, “You know: the guy who speaks this language.” In fact, it’s such a bitchy thing to say that she doesn’t even get it at first. It’s catty in its assumptions and it’s prematurely jealous besides: Why don’t you have the guy you’re servicing chauffeur you around?
Junior then remarks to himself and to us on her beauty – and his appreciation of it – and then when she offers to wash his glass, in what he sees in his cranky way as gallantry, he refuses to let her do it.
Then he goes upstairs and notes the disparity mentioned earlier between what Pruitt has given her and given himself. He notes Pruitt’s bachelor status and takes one of his condoms. When he finds the girl in her room they try to talk about Pruitt’s materialism but he feels he can’t quite make himself as clear on the subject as he would like to, so he ends up just agreeing with “He likes clothes.” But the notion of a habit of money – speaking of the ways in which an unhappy revelation like We’ve adopted their values might operate – he can’t quite make clear. “Are you going to pack?” he asks her. His transition to his decision to help her took place offscreen, apparently. Or it might be that he’d always imagined wanting to rescue her, and was just was irritated at the notion that he could be hired to do it.
He suggests she take some of her things with her, but she doesn’t want any of them. Wayne tries to talk him out of what he’s about to do. When Wayne tells him he can’t do it, Junior responds “You tagged Charlene, didn’t you?” which might mean, in terms of the subtext of its logic, Well, you do whatever the heck you want; why can’t I do whatever the heck I want? Or You’re selfish and I help people, so shut up. Or Hey, you get to have sex with Charlene; why don’t I get to have sex with the maid?
That he’s not only, or even primarily, thinking of taking advantage of his position as her rescuer seems to be emphasized by the structural position of what follows. The story cuts from his getting the keys from Wayne to his account of how hard his mother took his breakup and the news that he wouldn’t be settling down anytime soon.
And we transition to Junior and the girl driving over the George Washington Bridge. She’s left all of the clothes Pruitt bought her behind, but she has taken the corn chips. She’s munching; he’s not. Why not? He’s too nervous, he tells us. Nervous about what? Well, not his job. The corn chips should help make clear that she’s not thinking about romance – or if you want to be a little more cynical -- sex; but apparently he is. His choice of route turns out to be identical to Pruitt’s, in that it’s not the best way, but it’s the shortest. And also identical in that it doesn’t impress her. Or surprise her. She ends up having to pay the toll: another little humiliation. Junior asks another question about her background, and, in response to her one word answer, opens up about his own.
And that turns out to be enough preliminaries, as far as Junior is concerned. It really helps to visualize the scene that follows, because only in so doing can we appreciate the full effect of how creepily bizarre and unpleasantly passive Junior’s gesture really is. This is what happens:
"She nods, staring out at the traffic. As we cross over the bridge I drop my hand into her lap. I leave it there, palm up, fingers slightly curled. Sometimes you just have to try, even if you know it won’t work. She turns her head away slowly, facing out beyond the bridge cables, out to Manhattan and the Hudson."
Think about what it means to come on to a woman in that position in that way. Imagine someone doing that to you. Putting his hand in your lap, but with its palm up. Just hanging out with my hand, here. Not groping anybody. It’s just, you know. In the area.
Junior might say in his own defense that he’s trying to connect with her; that he’s a lonely guy getting over a breakup. The girl would tend to see it differently. We mostly see it the way she does, since he doesn’t know her, really, and in the moment, may not seem to her very different at all from Pruitt.
In fact, Junior may seem to her more predatory than Pruitt. That’s what he fears, and that’s why he’s so obsessed with the notion that she might have returned to Pruitt that he calls four times to check, continuing to call even after three calls that might have suggested to him that she hadn’t returned. On the fourth call it turns out that she has, though. That news leaves him with a number of interpretive options, none of which flatter him. This is how I act, and it doesn’t line up very well with what I claim I value. We provide ourselves no shelter.
Wayne certainly assumed that predation was the main reason that Junior wanted to play rescuer. Afterwards, Wayne asks Junior if it was worth it, and Junior tells him that it wasn’t. Wayne then asks, “Did you at least get some?” And Junior lies, and says that yes, he did.
It was a dream of a connection that might make class irrelevant that was driving him to want to rescue her in the first place: “If I were to park that truck and get out nobody would take me for a deliveryman; I could be the guy on the street corner selling Dominican flags. I could be on my way home to my girl.”
And maybe that’s why, ashamed, when he says to goodbye to her after having driven her into the city, at that point the term he refuses to translate for us reflects well on him: Cuídate. Take care.
That’s the guy he would have wanted to be. And that’s the guy that he was at the crucial moment with her unable to be.
If the best stories make us dismantle and reassemble our sense of ourselves, Junior’s unpleasant revelation turns out to not involve the ways in which the world let him down. After all, he was always very clear on that. His revelation – which he’s still not entirely ready to face, but which the story is savvy enough to allow us to view -- has to do with the ways he’s let himself down.
Junior is keenly aware that that girl has gotten the short end of the stick, and he feels for her for that reason. He identifies with her for that reason. He decides to help her for that reason. And when doing so, even he can’t keep himself from exploiting the power imbalance, when it seemed to favor him.
Here’s a good rule to keep in mind, when it comes to class. Class itself defines what is seen as power, appropriated or handed-down, versus what is seen as an unchangeable given. I’ll repeat that, as though it’s important. Class itself defines what is seen as power, appropriated or handed-down, versus what is seen as an unchangeable given.
Junior would protest that when he flopped his hand into that young girl’s lap when driving her to safety, he was just an individual trying to make a connection with another individual. But in order to believe that about himself, he had to choose to overlook the very circumstances of unequal power about which he’d been harping all throughout the story. When it served his purposes to do so, he became blind to class. Just the way, when it serves ours, we do the same. And given the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor in our country and in the world, if we don’t get better at addressing that willful blindness, on all of our parts, there’s no way we’ll ever reattain a community of fellow feeling.