November 6, 2002:

Game: Race for the doors.

Rules: 1. Line up behind the bench in single file. No-one is allowed to move until the front bumper of the bus is even with the left edge of the bench. Then, run like mad. 2. Rotate the starting positions each day, compensating for the fact that those on the inside of the line are disadvantaged. 3. It's legal to hold the others back. But, no hitting, hurting, or being mean.

Analysis of Rules: There's no way to know in advance just where the bus will roll to a stop. Thus there's no special advantage to either of the two end positions on the line. The inside positions begin blocked by those on the ends. Rules two and three have evolved with experience as forms of compensation.

Players: Four grammar school students, all fifth graders: 1. Clifford, stocky with a red face; 2. Mark, tall with long hair; 3-4: twin sisters in Catholic school uniforms: blue plaid skirts, white shirts with ties.

You've never learned their names. They're too shy. They hate their uniforms: they're difficult to run in without getting dirty, and they hold them apart from other kids. But they love riding the bus with you. You make the mornings fun.

Location: Morena Boulevard, San Diego, at the foot of Ticonderoga Street.

Date: Some time in 1967.

Anticipation is keen at this fifty-fifth daily running of the Morena Boulevard Race for the Doors. The athletes are at the top of their form, fierce competitors, widely held to be the greatest in the world at this particular event. There they are, taking the field: they're sorting their books, getting their quarters ready. And... yes! There's a rumble in crowd: they've sighted the bus. It's in the distance, to the left, rolling northward on Morena Boulevard. Rolling... rolling... The athletes take their starting positions: today it's girls on the outsides, boys in the inner, handicapped or... should I say... more difficult locations. There's the swish of traffic on this busy thoroughfare, the smell of diesel exhaust... and... there it is, the sound they're waiting for: the blast of air brakes as the great machine slows to a stop.

Earlier today I interviewed the two boys, Clifford and Mark.

Reporter: Good morning boys. I understand there's a special bet between you on this occasion?

Clifford: That's right. Today we're racing for the front seat.

Reporter: The front seat?

Mark: Yes, the forward seat closest to the door. We like that one.

Reporter: I see! That'll add a keen note of friendly rivalry to this occasion! I'm sure the crowd are just as excited as I am.

The boys together: Thank you very much. Looking forward to it.

And they're off! The girls are totally hauling ass. Look at those little black shoes fly! Braids flapping in the breeze. But look! Clifford's up to something... Yes! Ladies and gentlemen! Clifford has leapt the bench like Nathan Hale, vaulting himself into the lead past Sister Number One. The crowd is on its feet, roaring with excitement. It doesn't get any better than this. But wait - these seasoned sisters have a trick or two up their sleeves. There's Sister Number One, and she's... knocked the quarter from Clifford's hand! Yes! Yes! He's dropped his quarter. I can see it spinning on the sidewalk now. Clifford turns back, searching... and... yes... he's out of the race. He's definitely out of the race, searching for his quarter. What keen disappointment for the plucky little Fifth Grader from Martha Farnum Elementary.

It's Mark and Sister Number Two now, neck and neck, heading into the final stretch as the doors open. They're toe to toe. Sister Number Two has a slight positional advantage, but, Mark is taller, and not hampered by a flapping skirt. He's ahead by a nose now. Yes... he's pulling away. But... but... no! Sister Number Two has him by the arm. She's holding him back! He's got to be careful with those books. As the crowd holds its breath, he... shifts them to his other hand! The crowd is wild: they've never seen a full-throttle book-shift executed with such uncanny precision. He ducks beneath her grasping fingers, and... his foot is first on the steps! Mark's the winner by a half-length! The cheers are deafening.

"I won! I won!" As much to your own surprise as anyone's. Ear-to-ear grin as you step up to the fare machine.

Something's wrong. The driver's not in his seat. He's standing in front of you. Gray uniform, beer belly, a big man, strong like a football player. Scary. A substitute driver you've never seen before. He's angry. He's so angry he's shaking.

"Get off my bus," he says, in a voice of venom and contempt.

What? Do what?

"Get off my bus," he says, voice rising.

You stand dead still. Unsure what to do.

"No-one's ever taught you manners, little man?"

You say nothing. What are you supposed to say?

"I'll teach you manners, little man." Shaking voice, clenched fist, waiving in front of your face.

"You'll be a gentleman on my bus." There's a special emphasis on "gentleman," like violence, a slap. "You know what a gentleman is, little man?"

Voice rising. He wants an answer. "Yes," you say.

"Yes? Then tell me little man, what a gentleman is."

You say nothing.

"Then I'll tell you. A gentleman, little man, lets ladies go first." Red face, clenched fist, waiving in front of your nose.


-------- Ending #1: historical version --------

This is the ending which is literally true, that is, what really happened; in which the substitute driver employs a parody of the Socratic method:

"What is it a gentleman does, little man?"

"He lets ladies go first," you answer.

"What are you going to be on my bus, little man?"

"A gentleman," you answer.

"What are you going to do on my bus, little man?"

"Let ladies go first," you answer.

"Shouldn't a gentleman apologize, little man?"

"Yes," you answer.

"Apologize to who, little man?"

"Ladies," you answer.

"Apologize for what, little man?"

"Not letting them go first," you answer.

"Shouldn't you apologize then, little man?"

"I'm sorry," you answer.

"Not to me, little man."

You turn to either of the two sisters. They're looking at their shoes. "I'm sorry," you say to either, or both.

"Are you going to be a gentleman on my bus, little man?"

"Yes," you answer.

"Stand aside, little man."

You step down to the sidewalk, allowing the sisters to pass.

You're rewarded for your effort by being allowed to sit in the forward seat, nearest the driver.


-------- Analysis --------

This piece is about power and ideology. The substitute driver, a working class man who's internalized ruling class ideological definitions of gender, uses his power to impose conformity.

His power is pathetic, of course. Primarily the physical intimidation by a large man of a fifth grader. Secondarily the threat to deny transport. Unlikely he would behave similarly toward adults, or toward older kids capable of self-defense.

The ideology is equally ludicrous. That females require from males a combination of deference and protection, as though femininity were some sort of physical and moral handicap. This was the dominant view in 1967. Fortunately it had not long to live.

There are two things about this memory which interest me today. First, the driver's use of language, implying class-centric ideology in the very terms it used. "Gentleman," as if we were all on our way to the Royal box at the opera. Second, the example it offers of conformance to ruling ideology as in part voluntary, in part coerced.


-------- Ending #2: the Postmodernist version --------

In this ending, Mark is aware of his existence as a fictional character within a projected world. Based on that knowledge he demands a revision.

"Get off my bus," the driver says, in a voice of venom and contempt.

"Time out!," calls Mark toward the sky, forming the "T" symbol with his two hands. "I demand to speak with the writer."

Blood is about to spurt out both of the enraged driver's ears, when suddenly the world freezes, turning a ghostly shade of opaque blue. With a flash the driver evaporates. In his place, you materialize, dressed in a gray uniform for continuity's sake. You and Mark are now the only two participants in this universe capable of sentience, volition, or motion.

"Nice manifestation," Mark compliments you.

"I borrowed it in part from the arrivals of 'Q' on 'Star Trek the Next Generation'."

"Whatever," says Mark. "Let's get down to business. I'm not amused at being forced to re-live this traumatic experience from your boyhood."

"I can understand that," you sympathize. "However, it's the purpose of this world to explore this event, and, unfortunately, this is the existence I've chosen for you."

"Cut the crap," Mark says. He's already grown, that is, "developed," beyond the cartoonish characterization you established for him in version 1, and is displaying symptoms of sentience transcending the boundaries of the current fictional universe. Part of the fun of Postmodernism is that characters can be encouraged to take on these independent dynamics.

"Alright," you reply. "We'll negotiate. What do you want?"

"I feel it's reasonable for me to live through your sad experience once, but only once. Fortunately that's already behind us, in the - excuse me for pointing this out - linear mode in which you've organized this sequence of narratives. I'd like to take advantage of this form to explore alternative resolutions to the conflict scenario you've constructed."

"I see. So you're suggesting a sequence of these alternate endings. Not unlike a psychodrama workshop."

He nods. "Works for me," he tells you.

To you, this seems not only reasonable, but downright intriguing, experimentally speaking. "Jeez, I was smart in fifth grade. Too bad I didn't keep a journal then."

"It would be full of phrases like 'numb nuts' and 'penis breath', and would be primarily about kickball."

"Yes. Of course." You think for a moment. "Fine. That's settled. But, we'll do the endings that seem interesting to me, nowadays, the grownup forty-something type. And all memory of this conversation will be removed from your character."

He bows a formal bow, somewhat theatrically, sealing the agreement. The two of you freeze and become opaquely blue like the rest of the world. The universe sputters and goes out, like a candle-flame snuffed by moistened fingers.


-------- Ending #3: the sisters stand up for themselves --------

In this ending, the two sisters refuse to allow themselves to be patronized, while showing solidarity toward their friend.

"Then I'll tell you. A gentleman, little man, lets ladies go first." Red face, clenched fist, waiving in front of your nose.

Sister Number One steps forward. "Thank you. But, we don't require your protection."

"It's insulting to us to insist that men stand aside for us," said Sister Number Two. "We'd prefer to take our turns."

"These are our friends," said Sister Number One, pointing to Mark and Clifford. "They're our peers and equals. We'll compete with them on our own terms."

The driver is wholly befuddled. But, with the force of his criticism diverted, he drives, muttering about women growing up to be men. The four of you discuss sports in the back seat.

-------- Analysis --------

This is a happy fantasy, but it's unreal under the circumstances posed. Those girls were conditioned to defer to authority. Their blue plaid uniforms are the best evidence. In 1967 there were no alternative models available to them.

I wonder what became of them. My guess is that their futures were determined by the schools they went to. If they were in private schools through college, they probably became conservative housewives, backward-looking, vaguely resentful of the freedoms being demanded and won by women with different life experiences. They grew up to live in the suburbs, and voted for Gingrich in '94. On the other hand, if they made it into public university, they came into contact with the vibrant feminist movement emerging all around. I remember them as very, very smart. Unhappy with the constraints of their plaid skirts and ties. It would be a happy ending for them if their lives found this chance.


-------- Ending #4: the rebel scenario --------

In this version, Mark precociously possesses the experience and skill sets I later developed in middle school, which is to say, he's the Little Rebel Boy from Hell.

"Get off my bus," the driver says, in a voice of venom and contempt.

"Or else what?," you answer, without raising your voice, but with arms crossed, looking him dead in the eye.

Red faced, infuriated, he waives his shaking fist before your nose.

You tell him, "As you perfectly well know, if you lay a finger on me it's felony assault on a minor. You'll go to prison, and you'll lose your job. That leaves us with two alternatives. You can shut up and drive, or we can sit here all morning, until your supervisor comes to ask why your runs have stopped. Take your pick." Then you sit down in the doorway, blocking entrance or exit. You'll have to be physically removed before the bus can continue.

Red-faced and muttering, he shuts up and drives. The four of you get high in the back seat.

-------- Analysis --------

This is the wrong response in every respect. It's tactically effective, but it's a futile, machoburger effectiveness which teaches nothing. Mark merely wins a pissing contest, one flavor of empty ego confronting another. There can be no resolution without humiliation and embitterment. Worse, it treats the driver as a villain, when in truth he's probably another victim from an earlier moment in time. It's a rebel's response, not a revolutionary's.