Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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I have seven minutes for lunch, barely enough time to shovel the food down my throat before a guard yells, “Next row!” and we have to get up and leave the chow hall. Slow eaters and inmates with missing molars are doomed to lose weight in here. Still hungry, I try to hide a carton of milk under my shirt in hopes of finishing it in my cell. At the exit a half dozen of the most formidable prison guards line up to check us for contraband. If my timing is good, they may be busy searching other inmates when I pass, and I’ll slip through the gauntlet.
No such luck. “Grab a wall, old man,” a booming voice says. “Let’s see what you’re stealing.” A hand grabs the back of my jacket and pushes me face first against the cold cinder blocks. Another hand invades every part of my person, yanks the carton of milk from my shirt, and throws it on the ground. “Turn left and walk.”
I look back and see a three-hundred-pound guard stomp my carton, spraying milk all over the walkway. Rest assured, citizens, you are protected from milk-drinking criminals.
My best friend, Donna, and I spent our middle-school years smoking cigarettes, kicking in windows, setting off fire alarms, stealing beer from the corner store, dropping acid, and running away from home. Our single mothers, themselves products of the rebellious sixties, didn’t do much to stop us.
As we entered high school, our rebellion quieted, and we began looking for the boundaries that authority figures should have constructed for us. When Donna thought she was pregnant our freshman year, we confided in our English teacher, who likely risked her job to give us honest advice.
When we were sixteen, Donna called me at 3 AM because she was having an asthma attack. She couldn’t breathe and needed to go to the hospital. I knew without asking that her mother was at her boyfriend’s house, as she had been every weekend since I could remember. I borrowed my mom’s car and took Donna to the ER.
The attack was worse than usual, and after she had been admitted, the nurse said someone would see her immediately. And then we waited. Down the hall the nurses were having a party for someone’s birthday. How could they laugh and eat cake while my friend gasped for air? But I said nothing. Neither of us had learned to declare that we were important enough to take up someone’s time.
After an hour or so I climbed into Donna’s hospital bed and fell asleep. When we awoke, the sun was up, and Donna’s attack had subsided. The nurses and doctors were still nowhere to be found. I drove my friend home and had the car back in time for my mom to go to work.
Donna and I are both in education now, providing structure to young people. Donna is the mother of two girls, and we are still friends. We love our mothers, who did the best they could with what they had. But for our children, authority will be clear, well-defined, and unshakable.
My father wanted me to become a concert violinist. He put a violin into my hands on my sixth birthday and made sure I practiced for one hour each day in the backroom of his store.
Throughout the Great Depression I practiced while he stood on the concrete floor behind the counter, my mother at his side, varicose veins knotting under the skin of his legs. My father believed the promises of the dollar-an-hour violin teachers, who didn’t tell him that he had mistaken a rhinestone for a diamond.
One day, after I had played two compositions many times over with no hint of improvement, I finally gave up hope. I set the music books aside, folded up the music stand, and laid the violin and bow in the case. It was time to confront my father: no more violin.
His disappointment was immense. For years my mother told me my father would give anything if I would return to the violin, but no threat or promise would change my mind. I could live without the violin, and I did.
The night of my wedding, my father took his new son-in-law by the arm and, speaking just loud enough for me to hear, said, “Just do one thing for me: make Anne play the violin again. You she’ll listen to.”
In 1966 I turned eighteen and reluctantly registered with the selective service, requesting conscientious-objector [CO] status, which the draft board promptly denied. When my draft notice arrived in 1968, I considered fleeing to Canada — would that be cowardly or smart? — but I didn’t go. I was drafted.
After boot camp I was assigned to a permanent-duty station in California that was a holdover base for Vietnam. Before I got there, I consulted with attorneys about redeclaring my CO status. They told me that if I did, I would be put on guard duty to test my willingness to carry a gun. They gave explicit instructions on how I should respond. If the authorities attempted to court-martial me, I should demand to be represented by a JAG officer, a military attorney.
Arriving on post, I turned in my CO paperwork and was placed on guard duty the next day. I spiffed up my uniform and reported for duty without a weapon. The lieutenant who inspected me didn’t know what to do, so he sent for the captain, who arrived spitting fire. I stood at attention, scared but determined to hold to my convictions.
“Where is your fucking rifle, soldier?” he asked.
“Sir, I am a conscientious objector. I will pull guard duty and carry a flashlight, but I refuse to carry a weapon, sir.”
Snorting, he sent for a pickax handle and thrust it toward me. “Take it!”
He lifted it high in front of my face and smacked it into his waiting hand repeatedly until his palm turned red. My nose hairs quivered each time the ax handle sped past, but I remained resolute.
Finally the captain ordered me to report to the guards’ quarters. Five minutes later he sent for me.
“I’m court-martialing you,” he said with a smirk. He read me my rights, then asked, “Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir. What are the charges, sir?”
Ignoring me, he continued, “I have appointed Lieutenant Oliver as your attorney. Is there any objection?”
“Yes, sir. I object, sir. I request a JAG officer.”
Spit flew from the captain’s lips as he raged at me, but I had him. We went together to speak to the JAG officer at the base. The captain explained that my uniform was not up to military standards for guard duty, and he was going to court-martial me. The JAG asked me if I understood the charge.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Sir, since it is the captain’s opinion, how about someone else inspecting me?”
The JAG suggested the officer of the day. Figuring that gave me maybe a fifty-fifty chance, I told him that arrangement was acceptable. Hiding his irritation, the captain agreed.
Back at HQ the captain threw open the door with a bang and shouted, “Who’s the fucking officer of the day?”
It was the same lieutenant who’d inspected me earlier. I wondered whether he was a good guy or a bastard.
“I want you to inspect this man as if he were going on guard duty,” the captain told the lieutenant. Then the lieutenant looked me over.
“What’s wrong with him?” he asked the captain.
“Look at his uniform. It isn’t creased, starched, or pressed to military standards.”
“It looks fine to me.”
“What about his boots?” the captain yelled.
“I have seen a few better and many worse, but his are fine.” Then the lieutenant looked at me and said, “Take your flashlight and report to guard duty.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” I dashed off.
In the meantime my mother had been writing to senators, congressmen, priests — anyone who might help me. A few weeks later I was granted CO status and was made an on-the-job-trained medic. Over time I became an expert at giving nearly painless injections. The big brass sought me out for their shots, unaware that one of their own had once tried to court-martial me.
We had been protesting at the Wisconsin State Capitol for weeks, fighting against the passing of a bill that took collective-bargaining rights away from most public employees. The building’s marble walls were papered with handmade signs. Many of us stayed there round-the-clock, and pillows and sleeping bags lined the floors. My husband, our kids, and I had been living on pizza, but that night we were determined to sit down to a home-cooked meal as a family, the way we’d done before our world had been turned upside down by new Republican governor Scott Walker.
In the middle of the meal we got the call to get back to the capitol: they were passing the bill now! We abandoned dinner, bundled up the kids, and joined the stream of traffic plastered with “Recall Walker” stickers.
We arrived to see a stunned crowd. A group of Republican state senators was scheming behind locked doors to dismantle everything we cared about, a blatant abuse of authority by people who seemed to believe themselves above the law. In preparation for this moment, the governor had ordered the police to lock us out of our statehouse. Our chants, once filled with camaraderie and hope, turned angry and frustrated. Could this be legal in America?
After their deed, the senators slunk away through tunnels under the capitol to the safety of their cars. As they tried to drive off, the crowd moved to surround their vehicles but was held back by a wall of police. One protester threw snowballs. What else was there to do?
Then somebody opened the door to the capitol, and people rushed to enter before it closed again. The police tried to prevent us from getting in, but we filled the place like water pouring into a bowl.
My weary kids leaned against me, their eyes tired and shoulders drooping. They wanted to eat, to sleep, to go back to the life we’d had before all of this. We turned around to leave. There was a police officer stationed at the heavy wooden door. Most of the police sympathized with the protesters but had put away their “Cops for Labor” signs until they were off duty. Before this officer let us out, he looked kindly down at my children and said, “When I open this door, there will be a lot of people yelling. I want you to know they’re not mad at you, and they won’t hurt you. They just want to be let in. OK?” Only after he was sure my boys felt safe did he open the door.
After my mother was admitted to the state mental hospital, my stepfather brought my infant brother and me with him to Stockton, California, to live with relatives. I went from being my mother’s darling daughter, who went to school with her hair in ribbons that matched her dresses, to an unwelcome guest in the home of strangers. My long hair hung in tangles, and I wore whatever my stepfather found for me, clean and matching or not.
I was enrolled in the local second grade. The first day at lunch I went through the cafeteria line and sat down at a long metal table. When I began eating, I discovered a caterpillar in my salad, about three inches long and alive. My stomach lurched, and I couldn’t eat another bite.
Since my mother had been in the hospital, I had learned not to bother adults unless absolutely necessary, so I got up to scrape the rest of my lunch into the garbage. Before I could, a teacher snatched the tray from me and grabbed my shoulder and shook it. “You’re on the free-lunch program,” she said. “You’ll eat what you’re given and be grateful to get it.”
Until then I hadn’t heard of the free-lunch program. (It was uncommon in 1953.) All I knew was that my mother would never have made me eat a salad with a worm in it.
The other kids watched silently as the teacher turned me back toward the lunch tables. I began to cry and stammered that there was a bug in my salad. I even pointed it out, but the teacher ordered me to “eat everything on that tray.”
Fighting the urge to throw up, I sniveled and wiped my nose on my forearm. Why didn’t somebody do something? Why was this teacher so mean?
The lunch hour dragged to a close, and everyone but me returned to their classes. I sat alone in the empty room until a kindly cafeteria worker took my tray. The uneaten food, worm and all, went into the garbage.
My mistrust of authority was born that day. I grew up to fight for female equality in my local school district, to help form the first rape task force in my community, and to help establish our local battered-women’s shelter. I didn’t stay long in that school, but I learned a lot.
My parents broke up when I was eleven, and I spent a few years fighting against the changes in my life. My rebellious ways led both my mother and my father to wash their hands of me. At fifteen I was living alone in a rooming house in a small town in southern Australia and working at a meatpacking plant.
When my living arrangement came to the attention of the authorities, I was declared a juvenile delinquent and dispatched to a “home for wayward girls” until I was eighteen.
Upon arrival I was interviewed by the matron in charge, a large-bosomed, crisply dressed woman with steady eyes and a firm manner. She advised me of the rules of the institution, then handed me over to a guard, who subjected me to the obligatory indignities of a body search and delousing. While I was drying my long hair, the guard coldly stated, “You’d better enjoy your hair while you can, as you’ll be losing it the next time the barber visits.” Telling me this seemed to give her pleasure.
I soon observed that all the girls there had short hair. The only exception was one who’d arrived within a week of me and had beautiful auburn hair down to her waist. She was devastated by the thought of losing it.
I couldn’t see the reason for the short-hair rule, except maybe that long hair made a good handhold in a fight. When I questioned the guards, I was told it was for ease of care and cleanliness. It seemed a huge injustice. We had lost everything else; why did we need to lose our hair too? Finally I made an appointment to speak to the matron about it.
When I entered her office, she gave me a friendly greeting. Feeling somewhat reassured, I blurted out my objection to the short-hair rule. As long as we kept it clean and neat, I said, I thought we should be able to wear our hair any length.
The hint of a smile appeared at the corner of the matron’s mouth. “Well, Eleanor,” she said, “I appreciate your coming in and speaking on behalf of the girls. I’ll have to consider this and will let you know what we decide. If there’s nothing else, you can go now.”
I left her office feeling deflated. It had taken me so long to get up my nerve to speak. Had it all been for nothing? As the barber’s visit came closer, the girls who knew of my chat with the matron teased me with I-told-you-sos.
The Saturday the barber was to arrive, the matron called a morning assembly and announced, “Any girl who wishes to forgo a haircut may do so. However, let me state clearly, all hair must be kept clean, tidy, and out of your face. If there is one problem with this, we will all have haircuts again. Is that clear? Now, those of you who want a trim, please line up outside the library door.”
There was silence as she left the room. I saw the guard who had attended my delousing, and she wore a look of fury. She later made sure I paid for my actions in many ways, but I didn’t fear authority quite so much after that.
“He’s a bishop,” our Bible teacher, Miss Cline, said. “He’ll answer any question you ask. About anything.”
Some of the girls blushed and giggled. We were all juniors and seniors, members of the graduating classes of 1962 and 1963 at Saint Agnes. Miss Cline said we could write our questions on slips of paper and place them in a bowl. No one would know who’d written them.
I knew the bishop had been consecrated through the rite of the “laying on of hands” in an unbroken succession going all the way back to Saint Peter, upon whom Christ had built his Church. Maybe an authority like that could tell me what was wrong with me. I was the only agnostic at the school and had received many “Heresy!” comments in red ink on my Bible exams. I envied my classmates’ confidence that a loving divinity was watching over them. I had tried to pray, but it was difficult without belief.
On the appointed day about seventy of us girls crowded into the lounge and found seats on the floor. Someone had placed a free-standing blackboard beneath a picture of our patron saint kneeling for the executioner’s sword. Miss Cline appeared at the glass doors with a gaunt man dressed in a black cassock, and we all stood.
“Girls, this is Bishop Lodge.”
His black robe brushed the carpet and flowed behind him as he walked. Black sleeves draped from his elbows like wings, and his head was pink and hairless. He came to a stop in the center of our group and inspected us over a sharp nose.
“Young ladies, it is a pleasure to be here in such an attractive gathering. You are a feast for the eyes.”
He asked us to sit down and approached the blackboard. While we placed our questions anonymously in the bowl, he said he would address a difficult topic that he was sure was causing us a lot of painful soul-searching. I waited anxiously to see what he would write on the board, but was confused to see only three lists of letters.
“Now, girls,” he said, “we’re going to talk about sex.”
We sat in stunned silence as he charted for us how far we could go at each stage of a relationship. If we were dating, it was OK to talk (check mark next to the small t on the board) and walk together (another check) and hold hands (check).
If we were serious, it was OK to let the boy stroke our hair (check), to share a small kiss (check by the small k) and a small embrace (check by the small e). If we were engaged, it was OK to share a French kiss (check by the capital K) and for the boy to put his hands on our breasts (check).
Next came marriage. The capital E, he explained, stood for a “full embrace,” standing or lying next to one another (check). The capital F signified that it was OK for our husband to fondle our sexual organs (check). He paused at the last notation, a bold “S.I.” His voice reached a hoarse crescendo as he translated it: “Sexual intercourse” — double check, then underlined twice with strokes that screeched on the board.
He turned to face us, rubbing chalk dust from his hands. “Any questions?”
No one spoke. He reached into the bowl, picked one of the folded pieces of paper, and read aloud: “I want to believe in God but have no faith. What should I do?”
His face turned red, and he swept his gaze suspiciously around the room. “Who wrote this?” he shouted. He spun in a tight circle, his black sleeves flapping in our faces. “Whoever it is,” he croaked, “pray. Just pray!”
Sturgis, South Dakota
Ben steps out of the coop every morning with authority, pads to the feeder, and scoops up his scratch grains with a shovel-like beak. While he eats, he keeps one eye on his hens and shoots darts at the younger rooster.
Ben is six years old and the most debonair Rhode Island Red you’ve ever seen. His plumage is glossy and straight, his spurs nearly six inches long. Every morning he stands erect, chest puffed out like an accordion, and lets rip blast after blast. Sometimes, if you catch him daydreaming, you’ll see him trip over one of his gigantic spurs and then hurry along, as if hoping no one saw.
In the evening is the only chance to touch him. When he’s napping in the coop, you can slowly reach up and stroke him, comb your fingers under his shiny feathers, and, if he’s really conked out, scratch his chin and wattles.
A few weeks ago my husband heard a commotion outside and ran out of the house. He saw an angry Ben jumping up and down, thrusting his spurs into a fox that was trying to get one of the hens. After the fox ran off and the hens were settled, Ben went on about his day. He’d fought off a creature five times his weight, with rows of sharp teeth, all to protect his flock.
If you squat down with a handful of sunflower seeds, Ben will charge over with mighty bounds. When he gets close, he’ll look at your hand and, as gently as a doe, eat the seeds one by one. If a hen is nearby, he’ll step away and let her have the seeds, though he has no reason to. This is how he wins me over.
Lambertville, New Jersey
I was eight, and my brothers and I were playing hide-and-seek with some neighborhood kids. My favorite hiding spot was in the trunk of my father’s Buick, but when I opened it, my oldest brother, Mike, was already there. I was about to find another place to hide when Mike made room for me in the small, dark space. He was five years my senior and hardly ever showed any interest in me, so I was thrilled to be sharing a hiding place with him. He pulled the trunk lid closed and lay facing me, our noses nearly touching. I giggled, but he shushed me. Between the excitement of being with Mike and the fear of being discovered, I could hardly stay still.
As the kid who was “it” yelled, “Ready or not, here I come!” Mike pressed his face into mine and began kissing me, pushing his tongue into my mouth. I pulled away, but there wasn’t much room to move, and he found my mouth and kissed me once more. I shook my head, not daring to talk, still wanting, absurdly, not to be found in our game of hide-and-seek.
“It’s OK,” Mike whispered. “We’re just practicing.” He kissed me again, and I relaxed a bit. Suddenly I felt chosen, special. I realized with dismay that I liked kissing my brother.
Just then we heard the call to come out of hiding. Mike opened the trunk, and I bolted to my room, where I sat on top of my pink-and-green bedspread and stared at my doll collection, feeling ashamed, confused, and betrayed.
In the years to come Mike and my other older brother, Jimmy, molested me perhaps a dozen times. They had found a box of Playboys, Hustlers, and sex toys in our father’s closet, and they tried to do to me the things they had seen in the magazines. I was torn. I wanted my brothers to like me, but I didn’t want to do that with them. I’d resist and push them away, and when they wouldn’t stop trying, I’d wriggle free and lock myself in the bathroom. I’d even promise to do their chores if they would settle for just touching my chest and nowhere else, but I couldn’t make them leave me alone.
Finally our parents walked in on my brothers as they were trying to convince me to take off my pants and panties. Relieved, I thought for sure Mike and Jimmy would get in huge trouble and this would be the end of it, but my mom talked as though I had been a willing participant. I realized then that I wouldn’t be saved. There was no authority who would make sure it didn’t happen again. I’d never felt more alone.
Twenty years later, after I described to my therapist every incident of molestation I could remember, she asked, “Do you realize that, every time they tried, you prevented your brothers from raping you? You made it not happen. You were the authority who stopped the abuse from going further.”
My father was a decorated World War II veteran and acclaimed surgeon. After two Manhattans he’d grow red faced and opinionated. When teenage boys called the house for me or my sister, his deep, booming voice prompted them to hang up.
When I was thirteen, my field-hockey team celebrated an undefeated season, and although I was a star player, Dad never came to a single game. It didn’t matter that I also won a lead role in the school musical and got straight As; Dad paid attention only when one of us got in trouble.
My favorite part of school was singing in the chorus. Mr. Gaynor, the choral director, was young and hip, with scruffy blond hair and a beard. Every afternoon, after the last bell rang, a handful of friends and I would rush to the music room, gather around Mr. Gaynor at the upright piano, and sing songs from that week’s Top-40 countdown with Casey Kasem. My friend Curtis and I liked to sing a duet of the love song “Reunited.” We sounded so good that Mr. Gaynor invited us to sing it in the winter concert.
To this day I don’t know how Dad found out about the duet, considering he paid so little attention to me. My hunch is that Mom told him. She believed that wives obeyed their husbands and should tell them everything.
Dad forbade me to sing that duet in the concert because Curtis was black. I don’t remember what excuse I gave for backing out at the last minute, but I do recall the humiliation I felt.
Today my dad is eighty-eight years old. He doesn’t know the name of our current president or what day of the week it is. He sits in his La-Z-Boy, hands folded atop his belly, dozing off to the drone of CNN. It’s hard to believe that this man who can no longer dress himself once held such power over me.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
© Robert Alexander
Growing up in the projects, I saw two kinds of authority in the neighborhood. There was the authority of the gangs, maintained through violence and intimidation. And there was the quiet authority of the monks at a little Tibetan Buddhist monastery down the street. The monks lived with the same poverty that I did and (I learned later) had witnessed more violence and experienced more injustice than I could dream of, but they had a stillness, a calm, an inner authority that told you not to mess with them.
Wanting the same authority for myself, I stayed out of gangs and became the first person in my family to attend college. I traveled to India, Nepal, and Tibet and was fortunate enough to have an audience with the Dalai Lama himself. After I returned to the States, I went to graduate school in Buddhist studies and then, through residency programs in clinical pastoral education [CPE], to becoming one of the first Buddhist CPE supervisors. Eventually I landed a job as director of spiritual care at a hospital, but I still felt as though I lacked true authority, the kind I’d seen in the monks in my old neighborhood.
One day I began to have severe back trouble. It progressed until my entire body would give out and I was semi-paralyzed. There were times when I would vomit blood or lose the feeling in my feet. I might go from teaching a class to staring up at my students as they stood over me on the floor. I went in for surgery, but it didn’t help. I had to take prescription narcotics for the chronic pain and suffered the indignity of suspicious looks as I filled prescriptions for massive amounts of painkillers. All the while my condition continued to get worse.
I descended into depression and hopelessness and was no longer able to work. I went on long-term disability and gave up my job. The insurance company turned my claim into a drawn-out lawsuit.
So here I am, just an unemployed sick person wondering how the bills will get paid, tasting the bitterness of poverty once again. My mind returns to those monks who lived down the street when I was a kid. They had an inner authority that shone through, a dignity that allowed them to face hardship with a smile. I wonder if I will ever find that source of authority myself.
I remember my first day of Catholic school at Our Lady of the Snow. My first-grade teacher’s name was Miss Short, but she towered over us. When she read my name, Cynthia, during attendance, I told her to call me “Cindy.” She marched over to my desk and pulled me up by my plaid jumper. “Your name is Cynthia!” she said.
From that moment on I was petrified of Miss Short and had nightmares about getting left back and having to repeat first grade with her as my teacher. But my troubles were nothing compared to Dennis Sullivan’s.
Dennis had a bladder problem, and one day he didn’t get to the boys’ room fast enough. Standing by the door, he quietly tried to get Miss Short’s attention.
“What did you do, Dennis?” she yelled. Everyone stared, but no one laughed. We knew Miss Short could turn her wrath on us at any time.
Dennis looked down at his feet. I raised my hand to draw attention away from him. “Miss Short, may I please go to the nurse’s office? I have a stomachache.”
“No, Cynthia, you may not. We’re all feeling a little sick, right, Dennis?”
“I’m not sick from Dennis,” I said.
“Put your hand down, Cynthia, or you’re going to the principal’s office.”
Looking around the classroom, I could tell everyone felt terrible for our classmate.
“Well, Dennis,” Miss Short said, “I guess you don’t have to go to the boys’ room anymore, so sit down.” Dennis slowly shuffled back to his desk while Miss Short rifled through her top drawer. She produced a sketch pad and crayons and threw them on Dennis’s desk. “Now, I want you to draw what you are: a pig. Make sure it fills the whole page.”
Dennis gave Miss Short a pleading look, but she had moved on to our class assignment. We reached into our desks and pulled out our composition books.
“Dennis, are you finished with your drawing?” Miss Short later asked.
“Yes, Miss Short,” he whispered.
“Good. Now I’m going to tape this picture to some string, and you’re going to wear it around your neck,” she said. “But first write, ‘I am a pig,’ on top, because that is what you are.”
She made him wear that drawing around his neck for a whole week.
I often wonder what happened to Dennis, whether that experience continues to haunt him or he somehow found it in his heart to forgive Miss Short. I know I never did.
My eighteen-year-old daughter was one of many young people trying to prevent the cutting of old-growth redwood trees. None of the parenting books give advice on what to do when your child decides to protect a 150-foot-tall tree by living in it. Occasionally I would deliver food and supplies to the tree sitters: passionate, intelligent, idealistic kids willing to challenge authority in ways I’d never dreamed of. I also attended hearings whenever one of them ended up in court. I’d sit beside the scraggly activists, who smelled of garlic and tree sap, and watch their young pro bono lawyers duke it out with the slick corporate attorneys.
On the morning of Earth Day I agreed to act as an observer while the lumber company attempted to remove a tree sitter and cut down the very redwood my daughter had lived in for two months. I watched as tension built between the protesters, security guards, and police. Suddenly a man in a hard hat chased a female activist. It looked to me as though he was trying to grab her, and my mothering instinct kicked in. “It’s not OK for you to do that to her!” I shouted. I was ordered to leave for my outburst, and when I didn’t comply, I was handcuffed and hauled off by two sheriffs.
As I was being led to the police car, I went from being a supportive mom to a ranting protester, yelling about the injustice of felling the trees that are our natural heritage.
When I was released from jail later that day, I walked into the sunshine feeling stunned and humiliated. The charges had been dropped, but the experience had changed me deeply. I’d seen the dark side of the justice system.
On the bright side, I am no longer intimidated by men in suits and uniforms.
Mount Shasta, California
In 1968 I was a high-school student with serious questions about the Vietnam War and the segregated schools in my Southern town. I had found hope in the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the protest music of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. My parents and teachers were alarmed when I began to dress in bell-bottom jeans and blue work shirts and to question their authority. I was not permitted to go anywhere on my own. My father told me I was never to mention my antiwar sentiments to anyone, because he could lose his job over it. I felt alone, misunderstood, and depressed.
Finally my parents decided to send their “troubled” daughter away to live with relatives in Florida. My new town was like a foreign country to me. The kids in school were wealthy and clean-cut and drove fancy cars. They made fun of my “mod” clothes and hairstyle.
One day I got called to the principal’s office. I was a model student, so I had no idea what was going on. In the office I sat in a hard wooden chair facing three jowly men with crew cuts: the school principal and two deputies. One of the officers pulled out what looked like two marijuana cigarettes and asked if I knew what they were.
I didn’t know how best to reply. Any teenager in the late 1960s knew what a joint looked like, but I was afraid to admit it for fear that I would somehow incriminate myself as a drug user, which I was not. Figuring it would be wrong to lie, I said I knew what they were.
“Of course you do,” the officer said, “because we found them in your locker.”
In shock I insisted they weren’t mine and that I didn’t know how they’d gotten into my locker.
“Then why don’t you tell us who the drug dealers are in this school,” he said. “If you do, we won’t tell your aunt and uncle about the marijuana cigarettes.”
I could barely breathe. I told them truthfully that I didn’t know any drug dealers. They sent me home to tell my aunt and uncle I’d been caught with drugs.
After that my family grew distant from me. It was as if there were a veil between us. Soon I would vanish from their sight for good. I would leap into a world I had seen only on TV and in Time magazine reports from places like Haight-Ashbury and the East Village. Before long I was marching on the streets of Berkeley, shouting at the top of my voice, “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war!” I would never trust authority figures again.
In 1982 I became a Greyhound bus driver despite being the youngest in my class of trainees and a woman. Women drivers were rare at the time, and I’d gotten the job mainly because the federal government required that a certain percentage of women be hired that year. I had no professional driving experience and had never even owned a car. I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time behind the wheel of a Greyhound bus.
I didn’t get the respect I felt I deserved during training, even after I successfully backed the bus up through a serpentine course and changed a four-hundred-pound tire. Some of my male fellow trainees believed that only a “dyke” or a “whore” would take a job that required her to be away from home.
I would like to report that I received a warmer welcome from my passengers, but I didn’t. Riders often looked around in disbelief when I climbed on, sure there must be a male driver somewhere. Many were visibly nervous when I started the engine.
I loved being in charge of my bus and getting my passengers safely to their destinations, but I admit I did not cultivate an air of authority. The dress code required that hair be worn above the collar, and I complied by piling mine up in a ponytail with neon-pink pompoms to match my fingernail polish. If I got lost, I would ask the passengers for help; there were always some who rode the route regularly and knew exactly which turns to make. Apparently it was unheard-of for the driver to admit uncertainty.
One night, just before midnight on a run from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles, a commotion erupted in the back of the bus. A man came down the aisle shouting, “Driver, take this bus to Mexico!” Turning on the overhead lights, I saw that the would-be hijacker was not armed — in fact, he was one-armed. I guessed that he’d lost the limb in Vietnam. Accustomed to working with troubled veterans from my previous job on a psychiatric ward, I quickly decided to deal with him the way I would a patient: I stopped the bus, turned in my seat, and looked him firmly in the eye like a stern mother. “Sit down and be quiet,” I said. “You’re scaring my passengers.”
He sighed and sat down.
The other passengers were incredulous that my strategy had worked. When we got off the bus at a stopover in Santa Barbara, the man introduced himself and asked if he could buy me a cup of coffee.
San Francisco, California
“Question authority” was the motto in my home when I was growing up. When I asked my father “Why?” his typical response was “What do you think?” He was a muckraking documentary filmmaker who exposed immoral practices at various levels of government and industry. He’d served jail time for being a conscientious objector. My father helped many people, but he also abused his power, crossing sexual boundaries with me and keeping his violations hidden for decades.
At the age of twenty-nine I moved across the country to train under a Zen master and be a part of his community of monks and practitioners. I was convinced I would find a different and better life there than I had in my family. And I did for seventeen years. But I was trained too well to question authority. I eventually questioned my teacher about his use of money, and he refused to respond and chastised me for asking.
Four months ago my teacher was caught in an extramarital affair with a student whom he had promoted during the time they’d been secretly sleeping together. For me it was another betrayal, another misuse of power by a father figure.
Both my father and my teacher refuse to take responsibility for their actions. I feel that my father is sorry but just cannot say so. I’m not sure if my teacher is mentally well enough to feel remorse, although he is such a good actor, it is hard to tell. The two of them have become entwined in my mind.
I know that my father and my teacher are human beings who have their own lessons to learn. Neither of them has any power over me unless I choose to allow it. I remain wary of anyone, even myself, having power over others. I try to make sure I have time alone every day, so that I can hear the quiet voice inside me, the one who has the courage to speak her truth. From here on out, she is the only authority I plan to listen to.
Isabella des Etoiles
Salt Lake City, Utah
In the November 2011 Readers Write on “Authority,” Eleanor McNamara writes, “While I was drying my long hair, the guard coldly stated, ‘You’d better enjoy your hair while you can, as you’ll be losing it the next time the barber visits.’ ” It reminded me of the following experience:
At the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center for the state prison system in Jackson, Georgia, several of us new arrivals were herded into a large processing area. Other prisoners stood gawking at us, perhaps looking for potential victims.
“Make a line by that there chair,” the guard yelled, pointing at a barber’s chair.
Another prisoner waited with hair clippers. “How you want it cut?” he asked a long-haired boy. After taking the order, the “barber” ran the clippers down the center of the boy’s head, clipping it to the scalp. “Oops,” he said. “Sorry.” And then he laughed.
After losing our hair, we got sprayed between the cheeks and under the arms with bug spray. That type of humiliation generates hate. It carried me for years.