Thursday, February 12, 2015

Hearing Voices

Over the course of your life, wisdom, information, insights, and, sad to say, propaganda, have come rushing at you in a tsunami  of words.  Through these words and the voices in which they were spoken or written, you were able to patch together the semblance of an education.

Voice was important all the while, reaching the point about midway through your teaching activities at USC where you recognized voice to be your candidate for the single most important thing about communication in general and writing in particular.

For the longest time, the predominant voices you heard were from the middle middle and upper middle classes, reflecting family background and your father's career achievements.  Although you were born into the beginnings of what is still called The Great Depression and you arrived at about the time the family fortunes were in decline, you were for the most part hearing middle class voices when you were out in the world.

Words, information, real and invalid;  and lore beyond middle class came, as most such things come, from schoolyard and your then equivalent of independent studies.  Two words you knew enough not to say at home were Spanish.  Even though you did not grasp the full implications for some considerable time, you treasured them for their otherness and their foreignness, knowing you wished to learn other such words in Spanish and other languages.

There you are then, eight or nine, asking two gardeners who cared for properties on your block if they would give you more such words as pinche and carbon.  To their credit, Luis and Arturo did not laugh you away; they treated you with gravity, clearly concerned about your readiness to be initiated to such esoterica.

When Luis asked if you truly understood what pinche meant, you told the truth so far as you knew it.  "It has something to do with fuck."

"And you understand what that means?"

Only that it was not a word to be used at home or, thanks to the person you learned it from, girls.  "Of course."

"Much wisdom for a young fellow,"  Luis said.

You had about the same results with carbon.  "A fellow of-- of--"

"Are you sure you want to be the one who puts these things on him?"  Arturo asked.

"--a fellow with no family."

"You mean orphan?"


"Then what?"

More than likely, Luis and Arturo were more considerate of you than you realized at the time.  They left you with two new words of Spanish, cucaracha and tonto, allowing you to think they were naughty and, thus influencing forever after your reaction to the Lone Ranger.  Cockroach and crazy.  Pretty good for starters.   

Not long after, by pestering a mailman, you gained entrance to the slang words of drug use, thanks to a popular song of the time, "Kicking the Gong Around."  Melvin, the mailman, told you, "See here now.  The gong is something like a bell, true enough, but you see some folks, theys like to smoke a pipe.  Not like you daddy, you know, but filled with opium.  It make them feel something fine, all right."

"So kicking the gong--"

"You see, little man.  I think you see."

Not only did you see, you were able to connect.  When you heard Hoagy Carmichael singing a song about "a very unfortunate colored man, who got 'rested down in old Hong Kong/ He got twenty years privilege taken away from him, when he kicked old Buddha's gong," you knew what was up and why, thanks to a line in the song, "Each time I try, sweet opium won't let me fly away."

And of course you'd come to be aware of a song, "La Cucuracha,"  in which someone had smoked so much marijuana, he was unable to walk.

This was kinderspeil, German for child's play, because you not only had a better idea of what fuck meant, you also had learned how to say it in German.    But this was child's play for another reason, more related to actual child's play, but to a stunning awareness of voice and some of its implications.


"No answer.


"No answer.

"'What's gone with that boy, I wonder?'  YOU, Tom!'"

You were yanked right out of your middle class bubble with its few working class exceptions from maids, tradespersons in and about your neighborhood, Mr. Pope, the janitor at your grammar school, and Mr. Slater, the owner of a gas station on Third Street, who let you charge Bierley's orange soda drinks on your way home from school.  You were exposed to Twain's ear for voice and for what you'd come to think of as identity markers, ways by which you could tell who the author was without seeing the cover of the book or the running heads with the author's name.

Voice was so important to you, at this point subject to hand-me-down clothing from your maternal cousin, Eddie, that your early narratives caused teachers to ask you how many times you'd been to England.  You were often tempted to say, "One loses count," but to your credit, you never did.

You could not have said this until recent years; your wish for the voice you set down on the page is the inter-cultural, mingling voice of social and cultural classes coming together as such individuals do in story.  It pleases you not to describe the ethnicity or class of a character, rather to let her or him reveal such notes of individuality as you hear in your head as they strive to make their way, however wobbly, to their goals.

Today, in preparation for a forthcoming class, you are revisiting another voice so pellucid and haunting that once again, you experience what this valuable narrative filter does for you.

"My Uncle Daniel's just like your uncle, if you've got one--only he has one weakness.  He loves society and he gets carried away.  If he hears our voices, he'll come right down those stairs, supper ready or no.  When he sees you sitting in the lobby of the Beulah, he'll take the other end of the sofa and then move closer up to see what you've got to say for yourself; and then he's liable to give you a little hug and start trying to give you something.  Don't do you any good to be bashful.  He won't let you refuse.  All he might do is forget tomorrow what he gave you today, and give it to you all over again.  Sweetest disposition in the world.  That's his big gray Stetson hanging on the rack right over your head--see what a large head size he wears?"

That is unquestionable Eudora Welty, setting off on The Ponder Heart, as much in command of the voice she grew up into as a person could have without carrying a recorder around.  

All right, it is true; the Southern voices grab hold of you.  Welty.  Twain.  Burke.  Faulkner.  Woodrell.  But you must admit Elmore Leonard has caught that lightening in a bottle as well, and served it up in ways you can't get out of your head, like some old song you heard somewhere, back in the times when you were a little boy, setting out in quest of adventure, a notebook in your back pocket, and as complete a pack of licorice cigarettes as you could manage in your front pocket, where you could get right at it, in case you wanted to offer one to a friend, real or imagined.

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