In the early morning in the dark on my walk to the lake the leaves on the trees make a rattling sound when the wind blows and it’s the same sound we made as kids in school with the crude instruments we played to honor the ways of the indian, rattles from dried gourds we hollowed out and filled with rice. We painted turkeys on paper plates with our palms and taped them to the walls with our names proudly displaying we were here, washed ashore like the Pilgrims, a gift or a poison.
And it was the same rattling sound in rural Pennsylvania in the spooky farm fields at night when the wind blew through the tall corn stalks and the dried husks shook.
Near Halloween on mischief night, we’d go to the fields with our paper bags to collect the unpicked corn, shuck kernels off like stones, and throw handfuls at the fronts of people’s houses we didn’t like. It was called tic-tacking, and happened to me and my family once in our house on 12th street: like raining hell that sound, like handfuls of pebbles against glass.
I delivered newspapers back then and had about 100 subscribers in a tight radius around our house. Because all the houses were attached (they were called row homes), you could just step over the metal partition separating one porch from the next and walk down a whole block like that, porch by porch.
And around Halloween many porches were littered with corn kernels, a sign that you’d been marked by the local pranksters. It happened to the cranky old people on my route who lived alone and always frowned…to the girls we deemed as prudes or the boys nobody liked, who smelled or came from broken homes.
Like Kenny Frick, whose laundry reeked of mildew. Or Jimmy King, whose body odor smelled like urine. We drew cartoons starring kids we didn’t like in class and passed notes between each other right under their noses, a way of keeping the unwanted out. Of establishing our power by lifting our weak selves above the weaker.
Worse, when we tic-tacked my friends used the ends of corn cobs like grenades because they were so heavy and threw them at screen doors and called that “nigger knocking.” But as a kid I didn’t take it as especially bad, I knew it was wrong to talk that way, like the Goldenberg’s peanut chews people called “Jew chews.” Or the saying, don’t gyp me. Those petty, pernicious forms of hatred were woven into the fabric of our upbringing. Though my parents did their best to undo it we learned cruelty early on, it was in our DNA, and there was always someone to make fun of or put down to make us feel more powerful.
It’s ignorance that sustains that behavior, the same ignorance we had as kids in not recognizing the harm that comes from names we put to things, to the traditions we pass down without thinking or what we teach our kids in school. It’s ignorance that keeps us thinking that one’s sexuality is something we choose, or our station in life is something we deserve, when in fact I think it’s ignorance itself that’s really chosen, to keep ourselves feeling higher when in fact we are really low.