To Be an American Student in 2012

Cartoon by R. J. Matson: Weighed Down by Massive Student DebtMassive indebtedness changes a person, maybe even more than a college education does, and it’s reasonable to suspect that the politicos who have allowed the tuition disaster to take its course know this. To saddle young people with enormous, inescapable debt – total student debt is now more than one trillion dollars – is ultimately to transform them into profit-maximizing machines. I mean, working as a schoolteacher or an editorial assistant at a publishing house isn’t going to help you chip away at that forty grand you owe. You can’t get out of it by bankruptcy, either. And our political leaders, lost in a fantasy of punitive individualism, certainly won’t propose the bailout measures they could take to rescue the young from the crushing burden.

What will happen to the young debtors instead is that they will become Homo economicus, whether or not they studied that noble creature. David Graeber, the anthropologist who wrote the soon-to-be-classic Debt: The First 5,000 Years, likens the process to a horror movie, in which the zombies or the vampires attack the humans as a kind of recruitment policy. “They turn you into one of them,” as Graeber told me.

Actually, they do worse than that. Graeber relate the story of a woman he met who got a Ph.D. from Columbia University, but whose $80,000 debt load put an academic career off-limits, since adjuncts earn close to nothing. Instead, the woman wound up working as an escort for Wall Street types. “Here’s someone who ought to be a professor,” Graeber explains, “doing sexual services for the guys who lent her the money.”

The story hit home for me, because I, too, wanted to be a professor once. I remember the waves of enlightenment that washed over me in my first few years in college, the ecstasy of finally beginning to understand what moved human affairs this way or that, the exciting sense of a generation arriving at a shared sensibility. Oh, I might have gone on doing that kind of work forever, whether or not it made me rich, if journalism had not intervened.

It’s hard to find that kind of ecstasy among the current crop of college graduates. The sensibility shared by their generation seems to revolve around student debt, which has been clamped onto them like some sort of interest-bearing iron maiden. They’ve been screwed – that’s what their moment of enlightenment has taught them.

As for my own cohort, or at least the members of it who struggled through and made it to one of the coveted positions in the knowledge factory, the new generational feeling seems to be one of disgust. Our enthusiasm for learning, which we trumpeted to the world, merely led the nation’s children into debt bondage. Consider the remarks of Nicholas Mirzoeff, a professor of media at New York University, who sums up the diminishing returns of the profession on his blog: “I used to say that in academia one at least did very little harm. Now I feel like a pimp for loan sharks.”

Thomas Frank
The Price of Admission
Harper’s Magazine, June 2012

Cartoon by R.J. Matson

Atoms and Void and Nothing Else


The Roman historian Titus Livy likened history to a collection of “fine things to take as models” and “base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.” The contemporary American novelist John Crowley carries the thought another two thousand years along the road to who knows where, suggesting that “the past is the new future…its lessons not simple or singular, a big landscape of human possibility, generative, inexhaustible.”

Fortunately so. We have little else with which to build the future except the driftwood of the past, salvaging from the journey across the frontiers of the millennia what mankind has found to be useful or beautiful or true, on scraps of papyrus and bronze coins, in confessions voluntary and coerced, in five-act plays and three-part songs.

America’s Founding Fathers exploited the resource of history as diligently as their descendants exploited the lands and forests of the Ohio River Valley and the trans-Mississippi frontier. They framed their several envisionings of a republic (Hamilton’s and Franklin’s as well as those of Jefferson and Adams) on blueprints found in their readings of Livy, Cicero, Plutarch, and Seneca.

So in its turn the Italian Renaissance derived from the rediscovery of classical antiquity. The latter progression supplies the scholar Stephen Greenblatt with the premise for last year’s best-selling The Swerve, which accounts for the death and resurrection of On the Nature of Things, 7,400 lines of lyric but unrhymed verse composed by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus in the first century B.C. Greenblatt subtitles his book How the World Became Modern, attributing the metamorphosis in large part to the recovery of Lucretius’ poem in a German monastery in 1417 by Possio Bracciolini, Italian humanist, Vatican functionary, and apostolic scribe.

Lucretius had infused his poem with the thought of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher teaching his students in Athens in the fourth century B.C. that the purpose of life was the embrace of beauty and pleasure – that the elementary particles of matter (“the seeds of things”) are eternal. Everything that exists – the sun and the moon, waterflies, ziggurats, Mother and the flag – is made of atoms in motion, constantly colliding and combining with one another in an inexhaustible variety of form and substance. The universe consists of “atoms and void and nothing else.” No afterlife, no divine retribution or reward, nothing other than a vast turmoil of creation and destruction, the ceaseless making and remaking of despots and matinee idols.

To the modern mind atomic theory is old news, as it was to the schools of Stoic and Epicurean thought during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Christianity dispatched it to Hell, reconfiguring the pursuit of pleasure as sin, the meaning of life as pain. By recovering De rerum natura to the land of the living, pooling its resources with those dormant in the works of Ovid, Seneca, and Plato, the Renaissance redrafted the contract between man and nature, its embrace of truth as beauty and beauty as truth made manifest in the glory of its painting, sculpture, music, architecture, and literature. Over the course of the next six centuries Lucretius’ poem finds further development and expression in Machiavelli’s political theory, Montaigne’s essays, Shakespeare’s plays, Newton’s mathematics, and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

The circumstances at hand in the early years of the twenty-first century suggest that time is ripe for another redrafting of the contract between man and nature, with any luck of a magnitude comparable to the one that gave birth to the Renaissance. For the past fifty years it has been apparent to the lookouts on the watchtowers of Western civilization that the finite resources of the planet cannot accommodate either the promise or the theory of infinite growth – a.k.a. the American Dream. The simple arithmetic (too many people coming into the world, not enough water, oil, food, phosphorus) underwrites the vast landscape of trouble listed under the headings of worldwide environmental degradation and financial collapse. I read the relevant policy papers – on health, education, debt, poverty, homeland security, climate change, the extinction of species, the wars of all against all – and I notice that they tend toward a common awareness (dimly grasped but distinctly felt) that a global consumer society, if left to its own devices, must devour the earth. Not with malice aforethought, or as a matter of ideology, but because that is its métier – the scorpion that kills the frog on whose back it is crossing the river because it knows not what else to do.

The intimations of mortality lurking in the depths of the policy papers lead in turn to the recognition of the capitalist economy as an historical construct, and therefore, like a college reunion and the Colossus of Rhodes, a collision of atoms en route to recombination or the void. A story with a beginning (in sixteenth-century Holland), a middle (the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial revolutions in England and America), and an end (foreshadowed by the financial convulsions of the past twenty years at all points on the free-market compass). Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible slouching toward Wall Street to be born, the lookouts look for salvation in technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine. My guess is that they’re looking in the wrong direction. To acknowledge the truth of the old Arab proverb that says we have less reason to fear what might happen tomorrow than to beware what happened yesterday is also to say that we have more reason to look to the past – history as the phoenix in the attic – for the hope of the future.

Lewis Lapham
Ignorance of Things Past
Harper’s Magazine, May 2012

A .45 to Pay the Rent

Photo by Weegee: A Gun Shop Sign (1943)

Duke had this daughter, Lala, they named her, she was 4. it was his first child and he had always been careful not to have children, fearing that they would murder him somehow, but now he was insane and she delighted him, she knew everything that Duke was thinking, there was that line that ran from her to him, from him to her.

Duke was in the supermarket with Lala and they talked back and forth, saying things, they talked about everything and she told him everything she knew and she knew very much, instinctively, and Duke didn’t know very much but he told her what he could, and it worked, they were happy together.

“what’s that?” she asked.

“that’s a coconut.”

“what’s inside?”

“milk and chewy stuff.”

“why’s it in there?”

“because it feels good in there, all that milk and chewy stuff, it feels good inside of that shell. It says to itself, ‘oh my, I feel so good in here!’ “

“why does it feel good in there?”

“because anything would. I would.”

“no, you wouldn’t. you wouldn’t be able to drive your car from inside of there, you wouldn’t be able to see me from inside of there, you wouldn’t be able to eat bacon and eggs from inside of there.”

“bacon and eggs aren’t everything.”

“what is everything?”

“I dunno. maybe the inside of the sun, frozen solid.”



“what would the inside of the sun be like if it were frozen solid?”

“well, the sun’s supposed to be this ball of fire. and I don’t think the scientists would agree with me, but I think it would be like this.”

Duke picked up an avocado.


“yeah, that’s what an avocado is: frozen sun, we eat the sun and then we walk around feeling warm.”

“is the sun in all that beer you drink?”

“yes, it is.”

“is the sun inside of me?”

“more than anybody I have ever known.”

“and I think you got a great BIG SUN inside of you!”

“thank you, my love.”

they walked around and finished their shopping. Duke didn’t select anything. Lala filled the basket with whatever she wished. some of it you couldn’t eat: balloons, crayons, a toy gun. A spaceman with a parachute that flipped out of his back when you shout him into the sky. hell of a spaceman.

Lala didn’t like the woman cashier. she gave a most serious frown to the cashier. poor woman: her face had been scooped out and emptied – she was a horror show and didn’t even know it.

“hello little sweetie!” the cashier said. Lala didn’t answer. Duke didn’t prompt her to. they paid their money and walked to the car.

“they take our money,” said Lala.


“and then you have to go to work at night and make more money. I don’t like you going away at night. I want to play mama. I want to be mama and you be the baby.”

“o.k., I’ll be the baby right now. how’s that, mama?”

“o.k., baby, can you drive the car?”

“I can try.”

then they were in the car, driving. some son of a bitch hit his throttle and tried to ram them as they made a left turn.

“baby, why do people try to hit us with their cars?”

“well, mama, it’s because they are unhappy and unhappy people like to hurt things.”

“aren’t there any happy people?”

“there are many people who pretend that they are happy.”


“because they are ashamed and frightened and don’t have the guts to admit it.”

“are you frightened?”

“I only have the guts to admit it to you – I’m so god damned scared, mama, that I think I’m going to die any minute.”

“baby, do you want your bottle?”

“yes, mama, but let’s wait until we get home.”

they drove along, turned right on Normandie. it was harder for them to hit you when you were turning right.

“you are going to work tonight, baby?”


“why do you work nights?”

“it’s darker. people can’t see me.”

“why don’t you want people to see you?”

“because if they do I might get caught and go to jail.”

“what’s jail?”

“everything’s jail.”

“I’M not jail!”

they parked and took the groceries inside.

“mama!” Lala said, “we got groceries! frozen suns, spacemen, everything!”

mama (they called her “Mag”), mama said, “that’s fine.”

then to Duke: “damn it, I wish you didn’t have to go out tonight. I’ve got that feeling. don’t do it, Duke.”

you’ve got that feeling? honey, I get that feeling everytime. It’s part of the thing. I’ve got to do it. we’re tapped out. the kid threw everything into that basket from canned ham to caviar.”

“well, Christ, can’t you control the kid?”

“I want her to be happy.”

“she won’t be happy with you in the stir.”

“look, Mag, in my profession you’ve just got to figure on doing a certain amount of time. you don’t sweat it. that’s all there is to it. I’ve done a bit of time. I’ve been luckier than most.”

“how about some kind of honest job?”

“babe, it beats working a punch-press. and there aren’t any honest jobs. you die one way or the other. And I’m already along my little road – I’m some kind of dentist, say, pulling teeth out of society. it’s all I know how to do. it’s too late. and you know how they treat ex-cons. You know what they do to you, I’ve told you, I’ve…”

“I know what you’ve told me, but…”

“but but but butt butttt!” said Duke, “god damn you, let me finish!”

“finish then.”

“these industrial cocksuckers of slaves who live in Beverly Hills and Malibu. these guys specialize in ‘rehabilitating’ cons, ex-cons. it makes that shit parole smell like roses. it’s a hype. slave labor. the parole boards know it, they know it, we know it. save money for the state, make money for somebody else. shit. all shit. everything. make you work triple the average man while they rob everybody within the law – sell them crap for ten or twenty times its actual value. but it’s within the law, their law…”

“god damn, I’ve heard this so many times…”

“and god damn if you’re not going to hear it AGAIN! you think I can’t see or feel anything? you think I should keep quiet? even to my own wife? you are my wife, aren’t you? don’t we fuck? don’t we live together, don’t we?”

“you’re the one who’s fucked up. now you’re crying.”

“fuck YOU! I made a mistake, a technical error! I was young; I didn’t understand their chickenshit rules…”

“and now you’re trying to justify your idiocy!”

“hey, that’s good! I LIKE that. little wifey. you cunt. you cunt. you’re nothing but a cunt on the whitehouse steps, wide open, and mentally siffed…”

“the kid’s listening, Duke.”

“good. and I’ll finish. you cunt. REHABILITATE. that’s the word, those Beverly Hills soul-cocksuckers. they’re so god damned decent and HUMANE. their wives listen to Mahler at the Music Center and donate to charity, tax-free. and are elected the ten best women of the year by the L.A. Times. and you know what their HUSBANDS do to you? cuss you like a dog down at their crooked plant. cut your paycheck, pocket the difference, and no questions answered. everything’s such shit, can’t anybody see it? can’t anybody SEE it?”


‘SHUT UP! Mahler, Beethoven, STRAVINSKY! make you work overtime for nothing. kick your whipped ass all hell’s time. and ONE word out of you, they’re on the phone to the parole officer: ‘Sorry, Jensen, but I’ve got to tell you, your man stole 25 dollars from the till. we’d just gotten to like him too.’ “

“so what kind of justice do you want? Jesus, Duke, I don’t know what to do. you rant and you rant. you get drunk and tell me that Dillinger was the greatest man who ever lived. you rock back in your rocker, all drunk, and scream Dillinger. I’m alive too. listen to me…”

“fuck Dillinger! he’s dead. justice? there ain’t no justice in America. there’s only one justice in America. ask the Kennedies, ask the dead, ask anybody!”

Duke got up out of the rocker, walked to the closet, dipped under the box of Christmas tree ornaments and got the heat. a .45.

“this, this is the only justice in America. this is the only thing anybody understands.”

he waved the damn thing around.

Lala was playing with the spaceman. the parachute didn’t open right. it figured: a con. another con. like the dead-eyed seagull. like the ballpoint pen. like Christ hollering for Papa with the lines cut.

“listen,” said Mag, “put that crazy cannon away. I’ll get a job. let me get a job.”

“YOU’LL get a job! how long I been hearing that? only thing you’re good for is fucking, for nothing, and laying around reading magazines and popping chocolates into your mouth.”

“oh, god, it’s not for nothing – I LOVE you, Duke, I really do.”

then he was tired. “all right, fine. then at least put the groceries away, and cook me something before I hit the streets.”

Duke put the heat back in the closet. sat down and lit a cigarette.

“Duke,” asked Lala, “you want me to call you Duke or call you Daddy?”

“either way is fine, sweetie, just what you want.”

“why is there hair on a coconut?”

“oh, Christ, I dunno, why is there hair on my balls?”

Mag came out of the kitchen holding a can of peas in her hand. “I won’t have you talking to my kid that way.”

your kid? See that money mouth on her? Just like mine. See those eyes? See those insides? Just like mine. Your kid – just because she slid out of your crack and sucked your tits. She’s nobody’s kid. She’s her own kid.”

“I insist,” said Mag, “that you don’t talk around the child that way.”

“you insist…you insist…”

“yes, I do!” she held the can of peas in the air, balanced in the palm of her left hand. “I insist.”

“I swear, if you don’t get that can of peas out of my sight, so help me, God or no God, I’M GOING TO JAM THEM UP YOUR ASS ALL THE WAY FROM DENVER TO ALBUQUERQUE!”

Mag walked into the kitchen with the peas. she stayed in the kitchen.

Duke went to the closet for his coat and the heat. he kissed his little girl goodbye, she was sweeter than a December suntan and 6 white horses running over a low green hill. he thought of it like that; it began to hit him. he ducked out fast. but closed the door quietly.

Mag came out of the kitchen.

“Duke’s gone,” said the kid.

“yes, I know.”

“I’m getting sleepy, mama, read to me from a book.”

They both sat on the couch together.

“is Duke coming back, mama?”

“yeah, the son of a bitch, he’ll be back.”

“what’s a son of a bitch?”

“Duke is. I love him.”

“you love a son of a bitch?”

“yeah,” laughed Mag. “yeah. come’ere, lovely, on my lap.”

She hugged the kid, “aw, you’re so warm, like warm bacon, warm doughnuts!”

“I’m NOT bacon and DOUGHNUTS! YOU’RE bacon and doughnuts!”

“it’s a full moon tonight. too light, too light. I’m scared, I’m scared. jesus, I love the man, oh jesus…”

Mag reached over into a cardboard carton and picked up a children’s book.

“mama, why is there hair on a coconut?”

“hair on a coconut?”


“listen, I put on some coffee, I hear the coffee boiling over. let me turn off the coffee.”

“all right.”

Mag went into the kitchen and Lala sat waiting on the couch.

while Duke stood outside a liquor store at Hollywood and Normandie, wondering: what the hell what the hell what the hell.

it didn’t look right, didn’t smell right. might be a prick in the back with a luger, staring through a hole. that’s how they got Louie. blew him apart like a clay duck at the amusement park. legal murder. the whole fucking world swam in the shit of legal murder.

the place didn’t look right. maybe a small bar tonight. a queer joint. something easy. enough money for a month’s rent.

I’m losing my guts, thought Duke. next thing you know I’ll be sitting around listening to Shostakovitch.

he got back into the black ‘61 Ford.

and began driving North. 3 blocks. 4 blocks. 6 blocks. 12 blocks into the freezing world. as Mag sat with the kid in her lap and began to read from a book, LIFE IN THE FOREST…

“the weasel and his cousins, the mink, the fisher, and the marten, are lithe, fast, savage creatures. They are meat eaters, and are in continuous, bloodthirsty competition for…”

then the beautiful child was asleep and the moon was full.

Charles Bukowski
Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness (1972)

 Photo by Weegee: A Gun Shop Sign (1943)

Real Youth Consists in Loving the Whole World

Photo by Weegee: Coney Island Crowd, 1940

Really the poor get younger inside as they go on, rather than otherwise, and towards the end, as long as they have tried to rid themselves on the way of all the lies and timidity and unworthy eagerness to obey which they were given at birth, actually they’re less unpleasant than when they started. The rest of what exists on earth is not for them! It’s no concern of theirs. Their job, their only job, is to overcome that feeling of obedience, to spew it out. If they can manage that before they’re altogether dead, then they can boast of not having lived in vain.

Real youth consists in loving the whole world without distinction; that is the only thing that’s young and new. And can you say that you know many young people who are sound enough to do that?

Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Journey to the End of the Night (1932)

Photo by Weegee: Coney Island Crowd, 1940