Shrewd subalterns rise to the top of the meritocracy by telling us about the lie, and living it large. By being Eddie Said, tall, tan, and terrific in Savile Row tweeds, throwing stones at the Israelis’ wall, stifling Carolyn Heilbrun, and conferring an agency on Jane Austen never imagined by the generations of white sexist professors when Said, the brown one, said The Gentle Author was a tool of British imperialism. The lie, for women of my class, is more easily apprehensible than it is for the men, and if it comes through, it is apprehended in epiphanies about life at the top.
The lie is basically that progress is inevitable, and that if you work hard enough, keep all your teeth, speak business English, dress like them in chinos, blue button downs, and Top Siders, you will get a good job. Which will procure a trophy woman and trophy children. You will keep both the good job and the expensive woman and the talented children. This isn’t a lie. It happens. The lie is that if you do everything right, you will feel as if you are in the flow, and capitalist society, if not the god of Protestant money management and the prosperity Gospel, will inevitably make you rich and fill your life with abundance. This works for basketball players the way it does for George W. Bush, the benchmark of whose white privilege, lest you forget, was being handed his presidency on a silver platter by the Supreme Court majority his father had confected. God gives you these things if your grandfather was a Senator and you have the stones to run for president on an anti-Washington platform.
Creating and getting into the flow of white privilege is what all of us who want to make a living need to do. Your grandpa needs to be a Senator, and I wish you the best of luck with that. For women or people of color, the ’60s generation who intervened in the flow, or just tried to get good jobs, the apprehension of the lie, it seems to me, came in little doses.
Click, as Jane O’Reilly defined, forty years ago, the moment of revolutionary insight for feminists. I am looking at the typewriter font and pixelated red margins of the six-ply newspaper copy paper on which the editor at the great metropolitan daily newspaper wrote and posted office memos. Between the inch and a half-wide red stripes, with the white silhouettes of spectral sixes glowing in them, he has typed the schedule of who is working weekends. My name is on the list maybe three times more often than the two white boys who were hired the same time I was.
Click. I am in the White House press room, which Nixon built over JFK’s notorious swimming pool. I am feeding quarters into the Coca Cola machine and staring at the framed black and white photographs on the wall opposite. They’re of the White House press corps of bygone days, this one sometime during World War Two. Maybe 60 men in fedoras are sitting on a bleacher in front of the Capitol. Their names are written underneath. I read them all, and think, I haven’t heard of any of these people except Merriman Smith. The great UPI reporter had just committed suicide.
Click. The newshens, women who had become reporters in the ’30s. ’40s. and ’50s, who fought like tigers to edit copy at night or cover Pat Nixon, gave all of us our start in the newspaper business. Literally. One of them took me to the White House for the first time to show me how to cover Pat Nixon. Dorothy McCardle was then in her seventies, and had started out in life covering the Lindbergh baby trial and the explosion of the Hindenberg. I once watched her, like Baryshnikov doing sleight-of-body in The Dybbuk, slip through the Secret Service, police and other protection lines to follow Jackie Kennedy on her private tour of the Kennedy Center on the night of its opening. I went to Dorothy’s dentist for 15 years, until an emergency visit to the periodontist revealed he hadn’t been cleaning my teeth, every four months, properly, for nearly a generation.
Click. Another one of the newshens got me good assignments and a $5,000 raise. And one day, may God forgive me, I raised my eyes from my typewriter, and saw her, across the newsroom, approaching 60, breaking her ass over some other Pat Nixon story, and said, if I stay here another minute, I will turn into that. My brilliant black friend, who finally got the job at the New York Times, looked up from her computer one day at a little grey man in a little grey suit killing himself over some other Pat Nixon story, and said to herself, that’s the famous reporter pundit William Boot. This is all there is.
And so, when the laid-off executives and retired moguls and the redundant electricians, all those guys who bought it, start complaining that no one invites them out to dinner any more, that people look through them at cocktail parties, that they feel like their cocks fell off, that all their friends departed once they lost the driver/the access/the money/the juice and that bitch of a gold-digging wife, that they know how the n*****s and the s***s feel when they are turned down for the hundreds of jobs they’re applying for, that the charities they volunteer for offer them work picking up dog shit, that they claim, in their eponymous geezer websites, now to be “making art”, though the jay pegs posted show little evidence of it, despite all those weekends off that my ass worked instead of theirs, or, like Leonard Woolf, the radiant stoic, calculate that over the 90 years of his highly productive life he had, in 200,000 hours of labor, produced nothing of lasting value, you know what I think?
I think click.
That’s all there is.
My BBF and I knew it when we were 30 years old. Grow the fuck up. My BBF also showed me that a real woman pays her own mortgage, through thick and thin. It will make a man of you. Writes Woolf,
Looking back at the age of eighty-eight over the fifty-seven years of my political work in England, knowing what I aimed at and the results, meditating on the history of Britain and the world since 1914, I see clearly that I achieved practically nothing. The world today and the history of the human anthill during the last fifty-seven years would be exactly the same as it is if I had played pingpong instead of sitting on committees and writing books and memoranda. I have therefore to make the rather ignominious confession to myself and to anyone who may read this book that I must have in a long life ground through between 150,000 and 200,000 hours of perfectly useless work.
— The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, 158.
Poignant, to me, is the book store sticker on the faded paper cover of this hardback book. It says Savile Book Shop, 3236 P St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20007. The Savile closed in 1978; I was reading Leonard’s observations about work shortly after the publication of the foruth volume of his biography in 1970, and quoting the old socialist in the newspaper by the early ’70s. Working weekends. And nights. Not the best prescription for a marriage.
So it seems as if there would be no surprises, no damage done, to such a person when I started, thirty-two years later, aged 62, to look for work. Again.
To be continued.