Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Problem with Boys

Last night at midnight I was leaning against the deck railing of one of the small-town bars not too far from my house. It was a rare December night. It was sixty degrees, and most of the people out on the deck weren't even wearing coats. And it might've been that--the warmth, the surprise, the unexpected spring-smelling world--that made everyone a little reckless and crazy.

I'd come to the bar to see my friend Josh. He was there with some of his friends, boys he'd gone to school with in the district next to the one my friends and I attended. During school, I had very little contact with people from Josh's school. I was friends with only a handful, and that was because those people were dating someone I knew--my cousin, maybe, or my best friend. But when I got my first real job waiting tables at a restaurant close to my house, I was pushed into that district's world. The waitresses, the bus-boys, the dish-boys, the cooks--all of them were attending or had attended Josh's school. I was the only person at the restaurant from my district.

This worked in my favor because no one at the restaurant knew me. It was a clean slate, a fresh start. It was wonderful. I could walk into that place and have people form opinions on me based not on what I had been like in sixth grade but what I was like now. Of course, that worked vice-versa, too. I didn't know these people or what they were like at school, what they were known for, who they dated, what kind of trouble they got into on a daily basis. All I knew of them was what I saw at work.

I won't lie: what I saw in some of them--most of them--made me wonder what the hell went on over at that other school district. It was bigger than ours, sure, and it was a slightly more rural area, but it seemed like the student population--based on what I saw at the restaurant, where employee turnover was fast and vicious--was completely, completely, completely different than ours. The girls were all having sex with each others' boyfriends and spreading nasty rumors behind each others' backs, and the boys were smoking pot and guzzling from the taps at work before talking about who they were going to beat the shit out of later.

I worked at that restaurant for three years of my life, and the situation never really changed. There was drama, rage, violence, and an awful lot of people who got fired for things that involved drama, rage, or violence.

Years later, after I moved back from Minnesota to adjunct during the semesters and pick up waitressing work again before I got my full-time job, I worked at another restaurant that sat squarely in the middle of that other school district. Again I was the only girl from my district, although it had been many years since I'd graduated. I was one of the oldest waitresses. Most of the other girls were sassy-mouthed high schoolers who tied ribbons in their hair before coming to work to talk about that fucking cunt they were going to punch in the box the next day at school.

The boys weren't much better. In fact, they weren't better at all. They were worse. They traded sexual partners and beat their girlfriends and threw punches in the parking lot. They slept with married women and knocked their girlfriends' cousins up. They swore in front of customers and talked loudly about sexual positions while they were making, say, a hot fudge and marshmallow sundae for that table of church-goers at the counter. They were mean. They were rude. They were dumb. They said the foulest, nastiest, most evil things I'd ever heard said, and there were an awful lot of days I drove home from work thanking God I had been born two houses away from the two districts' dividing line.

And, to be fair, I know there are boys I graduated with who acted like that. I know that. But there were less of them. There were an awful lot of sweet, polite, smart boys in our school. They were bumbling and goofy, and the things that those boys from the other district were saying or doing wouldn't have ever occurred to them. Not in a million years.

And last night, when I was standing on the deck of that small-town bar, surrounded by people from that other school district, I couldn't help thinking again about the differences I saw in us.

Josh was standing with a small group of guys. One of them was a friend of his I've met a few times, and another of them was a boy Josh and I had worked with back in our restaurant days.

He grunted out a greeting to me and then, after Josh--who enjoys challenging people--told this boy that I was a liberal kind of girl, he started in with this: "Fucking idiot liberals!" he said. He ranted. He raved. He went on about predictable things. He mentioned that he couldn't wait for Obama to get into office and foul everything up just so he could rub the noses of everyone who voted for him right down into it the mess he made.

I could've predicted the words falling from his mouth. He sounded exactly like Ex-Keith used to sound, exactly the way the Wily Republican sounds now, the way so many military boys sound after they've done their tours. They talk to you like you're an idiot, like you could never comprehend the things they know, like you could never understand the political climate in the intimate way they do, like your opinions, causes, and concerns are not important because you don't really understand and appreciate America.

These boys are drunk on testosterone and their own self-love. They have done something beautiful and brave, and they feel entitled to something now--something like your immediate respect, no matter how disrespectful they are being. They think you should respect and defer to them because, well, how could you possibly be as savvy as they are? Nothing bothers me more than that. Nothing bothers me more than knowing boys who think they are greater, smarter, and stronger than the normal American citizen just because they made the choice to serve in the armed forces. And I'm sick of these boys telling me and anyone who will listen that we are stupid, naive, silly.

Last night, after the boy I used to work with had talked his talk about the president-elect and all the things he was going to royally fuck up, after he told Josh he was smarter than Josh because he read more books over the course of a year, and, later, after another rant he turned to me and said, "That was a metaphor. I was being metaphorical. Do you understand that?", and after I told him I was so thankful he took the time out to explain that he had just used a metaphor because there was very little chance I was going to understand that since, gee whiz, I was only a professor of English--after all that, he stubbed his last cigarette out into a melting snowbank.

"Take me to get cigarettes," he said.

"There are cigarettes inside," I said. I knew for a fact that there was a cigarette machine in the back of the bar.

"There are not," he said.

"There are," I said.

"Not the kind I smoke," he said. "Take me to Wilson Farms so I can get some."

"No," I said. I was appalled at his assumption that I--the girl he was just sassing up and down--was going to turn around and let him sit in my car so I could drive him to get some cigarettes. And he looked confused when I told him no. He seemed shocked, surprised, irritated. Again, it seemed like he was relying on entitlement--he was entitled to treat people like shit and then demand they do things for him because, well, he was in the Navy.

But before he could protest and before I could explain just exactly why I was not going to be driving him up the road to get a pack of cigarettes, one of Josh's other friends stumbled toward us and punched the beer bottle out of the boy's hand. It flew over the railing and cracked on the pavement. Then he punched the beer bottle out of Josh's hand, and it spun across the deck slats.

It had been empty, but Josh, sensing an opportunity to get a new beer out of the situation, shouted at his friend. "Hey!" he said. "What are you doing?! Go buy me a new beer right now!"

But his friend didn't. Instead, he punched the drink out of his girlfriend's hands. This drink was full and pink, and when it launched into the air, the pink liquid spread and landed everywhere. It rained down onto Josh, onto me, onto my white jacket, onto my purse.

"You need to go home," someone told the boy, but he was still staring at his girlfriend. His eyes were narrowed and wild. His fist was still clenched. Then he punched her. He punched her right in the hip.

She screamed. She slapped him. He howled and stumbled and fell into the railing, then launched back against the wall.

"Fucking bitch!" he hissed.

She rubbed her hip, but never took her eyes off him. She glared.

It was only going to get worse. That much was clear. There would be more spilled drinks and thrown punches and shouted insults if someone didn't do something.

"Man, you should go home," Josh said. "I'll drive you home. Come on."

"How many drinks have you had?" I asked.

Josh started doing the math in his head.

"Forget it," I said. "I'll drive him home." I paused and nodded toward the boy, who was still leaning against the wall of the bar and holding his side, nursing some kind of injury. "Where do you live?"

"Arcade," he said.

"Okay," I said. "Fine. Let's go."

"Okay," he said. He stood and tried to find balance. He swayed one way then the next.

I started walking away, hoping the boys would follow without any more incidents. "Where in Arcade do you live?" I asked.

The boy narrowed his eyes at me. He glanced quickly at Josh and then back at me. "Is she retarded?" he asked, then raised his voice. "ARE YOU RETARDED?"

I anchored one of my heels in a snowbank and turned to look back at the boys. Josh looked startled. The two other boys were laughing.

"Like Arcade is so big?" the drunk boy asked. He swayed on his feet and the Navy boy held him up. "You're retarded."

And then I felt so tired and sad. I knew that this was the kind of thing, the kind of talk and actions, this kid was allowed to get away with all the time. No doubt his girlfriend heard these kinds of things--and worse--every day. She let him talk to her that way, call her those things. She stood by him as he punched people, threw their drinks, told them they were fucking idiots or stupid assholes or ugly bitches or just plain retarded. It seemed like a different kind of entitlement. This kid didn't think he was entitled to act in whatever way he pleased because he'd served his country--because he hadn't; instead, he thought he was entitled to act in whatever way he pleased because he was a man, he was important, he was bigger and smarter and tougher than anyone else. If he wanted to drink three pitchers of beer by himself, so be it. If he wanted to lean up against the railings of this small-town bar and drink even more--half of it making it into his mouth, half dribbling down his chin and onto his shirt--he was going to. And he was going to tell his girlfriend what he really thought of her--that she was nothing more than a stupid fucking bitch--and he was going to walk up to his friends and swat the beer from their hands because, well, he could. He could. So he would.

"Jess," Josh said. His look was saying I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

But that was part of the problem with this kid. Everyone around him just went along, never told him he was wrong to act like that. They swept up his messes and said I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. His parents, his friends, his girlfriends--they probably spent a lot of time following him around and explaining away his bad behavior.

And thinking about that made me tired, sad, and even a little bored. This kid was just like the majority of dish-washers, cooks, and bus-boys I'd known over the years. He was predictable and angry for no good reason.

"See you later," I said and turned to go home. I reached into my purse and found my keys. I carefully climbed around the snowbanks and went down the stairs to the back parking lot. Josh was calling my name and telling me not to go, to stop, to wait, but there was nothing that could've kept me there at that moment. Not even Josh, who was now coming after me and trying to explain what had just happened.


Jason said...

This kid didn't think he was entitled to act in whatever way he pleased because he'd served his country--because he hadn't; instead, he thought he was entitled to act in whatever way he pleased because he was a man, he was important, he was bigger and smarter and tougher than anyone else.

This kind of dumbass doesn't do what he does because he's a man, and nobody does it because they were in the military. He does it because he's an asshole who happens to be a man, and others do it because they're assholes who happened to be in the military.

There's no necessary connection.

Why did I just feel the need to defend my gender or my past? I don't know.

Jess said...

I thought about you a lot when I was writing that entry, Jason. I knew you wouldn't be a fan.

Still, I do think there's a certain truth to what I said. When people come out of the military, there is something in them that is deeply changed, and some of those people are not changed for the better. Some of those people take that experience and turn it into a mark that they feel excludes them from certain things--like, as I felt with this guy, certain polite social graces. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard these types of boys defend their actions by saying this: "What are you going to do about it? I was in the military!" or "What do YOU know? Were you in the military?" or "You don't know shit. You weren't in the military. You OWE me."

And, I suppose, I don't owe them anything more than my thanks. And I don't think they can get away with things--even if it's telling me I am stupid because I wasn't in the military and therefore not hip to the true political climate of the US.

It's probably true that I've known a lot of assholes who have gotten out of the military, and I'm certainly not saying it's all military folks or even a majority of military folks. I am, however, saying it's a gross number of boys in this town I was describing here.

Also, as for the one I was talking about that seemed entitled to act this way because he was a man--a big, strong man--well, I do think there's a connection there. I think that in this small country town, where boys are often raised to be farmers and also traditional heads-of-households, they DO feel they are entitled to certain things and certain ways of behavior because that's traditional, because that's the way it was in their families, because that's the way they've seen their older brothers behave. I think it has a lot to do with the climate and very specific culture of this particular small town. I know a lot of people who do not think this way. I do, however, know a lot of people from this small town who do. And those are the ones I'm writing about, and I do believe what I said is part of the way they act like assholes.

Which you're right about, of course. They're assholes. Big ones.