I must have been no more than five years old because my legs didn’t reach the floor when I sat back in a large seat of the darkened Austin movie theater on a Saturday afternoon. There was, of course, the March of Dimes collection box passed around in between the double feature, cartoons, a serial and possibly a Pete Smith Special Short. In those days people entered at any time.
Now the place was pitch black. A large man groped his way along my aisle, his eyes still wide with the sun. He inched slowly feeling for shoes anxious to find a seat with no legs in front of it. Stopping in front of mine he started to settle down on top of me.
What could I do to announce myself in this world, to avoid eradication? My defense to being crushed and erased was to make a joyful noise, to shake my Good & Plenty. A sound that I was good and there was plenty of me or at least enough to live another day.
It was like Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo yelling to the cars as he crossed a street in Manhattan, I’m walking here, I’m walking. It was my declaration of existence, I’m sitting here, I exist, I matter.
I‘ve returned to this scene many times in my head but there is a missing person in the tableau. I have never before included my brother who, four years older, was my keeper. Many fleeting snap-shots still cling to my bone in those early years but I seem to have photo-shopped Arthur out from all of them.
In my solipsism of childhood he didn’t matter… but, of course, he did. Too late to make amends; he died 56 years ago yet that needs now to be at least stated. Arthur had a short and troubled life. I don’t think he ever knew he mattered. His death came on a mountain road with a high alcohol content in his bloodstream.
One day as teenagers we were left a couple of dollars to have dinner in a restaurant. Either my mother was in the hospital with a detached retina and my father was working or he was laid up with double pneumonia and she was working. I recall how uneasy my brother was as we sat at the local deli waiting to be served. He wasn’t sure anyone would see us and if they did would the waiter even take our order?
There were times along the way when mattering takes the form of vanishing. One class in Pharmacy College was taught by a professor Aldstadt who tyrannized us with his Gestapo-like tactics. The subject was pharmaceutical chemistry. We had to memorize structural formulas of new products coming on the market. Typically he would say, You, with the pimples on your face hiding behind Goldstein, get up to the blackboard and show us how stupid you are.
My strategy was to disappear by wearing a beige shirt to class that I hoped would blend in with the seat. It worked but a far better way of mattering happened when a returning G.I. cornered the diminutive teacher, grabbed him by the collar and reminded him why we fought the war.
When Peggy was in a rehab for over sixty days in 2013 I hung around and got to chat with a few others in recovery. Everyone I spoke to had stories to tell. There were movie directors and security guards, teachers and checkers in markets. They struggled to be known beyond being that patient in the room at the end of the hall. They all mattered.