UMKC sat a mile or two from our dead end. It was an urban campus comprised mostly of stone buildings and tall parking structures. Eugene Mays’ office was on the third floor of a very old building. Dad and I found the other men in folding chairs arranged in a semi-circle before Eugene’s desk. The men were decked in their customary uniforms. Toby was dressed a lot like a college student, in gym shorts, tee-shirt, and flip-flops: all he needed was a beanie to complete the wardrobe. Lou wore gray sweats that were scissored jaggedly above the knees, a florid-green tank-top, and mammoth red sneakers with no socks. Bub had on denims, an Oxford, and blue boat sneakers. Eugene, who was on the phone when we arrived, wore straight-legged cords and a long-sleeved dress shirt that needed laundering. His office—a converted closet, most likely—had no windows, such that Lou’s face was expelling all sorts of inner oils. Beside him Bub was swallowing hard and fanning himself with a booklet.
“This beginnin to suck,” Lou grumbled to Toby.
At that, Eugene put down the phone and welcomed us. Wasting no time, he began a speech about the sins of economists and academics and university publishing houses. By now Bub was shriveling like a perishable on a picnic table. He sagged in his chair, picked at his shirt, and finally said, “Is it hot in here, or is it just me?”
Lou tugged at his own rear and said, “My skibbies are startin to creep.”
Eugene said he preferred the integrity of his office to the confederacy of dunces everywhere else, but I sensed he didn’t want a dead old man on his hands. Joylessly he led us across the parking lot to the student union, where it was spacious and cool and smelled of onion rings, which harmonized with Eugene’s scent. Lou tried to order an ice-cold beer, but he had to settle for a large soft drink, which is what we all chose. We then took a table in the back, well apart from the summer-school students who were seated here and there, dawdling over their books and beverages. Eugene sat on one side, we men on the other. He placed a tape recorder on the table, took out a pad, and began the business of humanizing his scholarly book.
“So, tell us a little about Toby.”
The plump man positioned his face above the recorder and stared into it like a child stares into a TV camera. “I am Toby and I am fresh out of work one more time now.”
Eugene suggested he lean back and speak naturally, as the microphone was sensitive enough to pick him up from where he sat. So Toby hunkered back and spoke of how he once had a good job at the Ford plant. When he got laid off years ago, his wife left him.
Eugene braced his sharp elbows on the table. “How’d it feel to lose that job?”
“Bad.” Toby swigged his strawberry soda and licked away the liquid from his upper lip.
“Bad?” Eugene asked, fishing for more. “Did you feel like a pawn in The Man’s game?”
Toby pursed his lips, erected his chin, and nodded.
The scholar adjusted his glasses and said, “So now that your latest place of employment is one monumental ashtray, where do you go from here?”
Our chubby friend took a larger drink and worked a mouthful of shaved ice. He began shaking his head. “I can’t say. Fast food, no. When a grown man puts a paper hat on his head and goes to work with high-school children, I don’t know what the world is comin’ to.”
These remarks fueled the graduate student. He started jabbering about the power elite and its conspiracy to turn us all into slave laborers. He even had unkind words for the Asian sweatshops that produced the trainee hats Toby had referenced.
Then he turned to Lou. The wiry man adjusted his cap, gripped his cup with one hand, and pitched forward to speak. Eugene gestured for him to ease back. Lou looked crossly at Toby and said, “I ain’t had me a forty-hour job since A.M.C. way back in the seventies. Fat fool here makes fun of A.M.C. and the Hornet and all, but that company put food on my bones.”
Toby held up his hands. “I ain’t said nothin about no Hornet.”
“Not in the last five minutes you ain’t.”
Continuing, Lou said he wasn’t optimistic about his career but hoped something gainful would turn up. He needed to move from his sister’s house because she was about to marry a Jesus freak.
The news sent Eugene’s brows northward. “Religion is the opiate of the masses. The concept of religion was advanced so people would delay happiness on earth while they await a heavenly paradise. As such, those in power didn’t have to worry about the little people thinking too much. I mean, think about it: the primary precept of every religion is to stifle independent thinking.”
Bub grinned through it all. It was a smile of delight rather than bemusement. He was a man who for years had spent most of his hours alone, and now he was rarely without such fine company. But at his turn the grin vanished as he spoke of how the toy-bank company had been seized. These words heartened Eugene, and he asked, “Did you feel betrayed? Did you feel like a social contract was severed?”
“You bet I did. My brother said I deserve what I get. He gets on me all the time, even though we never talk. He thinks he’s a big shot. He’s got this gigantic used-car lot out in Olathe. You probably seen his commercials.”
“Fraid not,” Eugene said proudly. “Television—I’m too sure.”
“He pays this guy to play him. A good-looking guy. Clint the Super Dealer. What a fake.”
“The man goes flittin around in a cape and leotards and talks about financin folks,” Lou added.
“Financing, that’s a laugh. Clint wouldn’t even finance me, his own flesh and blood. So I bought my RV someplace else.”
“RV? You’re a fellow traveler?” Eugene asked.
He shook his head. “It's just nice to have your own crapper handy.”
“You know,” Eugene began, his fingers interlocked and suspended above the table, “that’s what I’m driving at here. Our economic system pits brother against brother, father against son, friend against friend. And all for what?”
“What?” asked Bub.
“Misery. Isolation. Anger. You men are angry, and rightfully so. I’m sensing a lot of frustration and despair that, frankly, is quite heartening.” Then he turned to Dad. “What about you, Roger? Where has the road taken you?”
Dad looked tongue-tied. He’d been reluctant to attend this meeting—he had a fear of the unknown and a distrust of anything academic—but the prospects of two-hundred dollars held just enough sway to get him here.
To fill in the silence, Toby began singing: “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”
“I guess that’s right,” Dad said with an uneasy chuckle. “The party’s over. You see, I was a stoner and all most my life, till a few weeks ago. I smoked a lot of weed and stuff, but mostly I sold it for some pretty good bucks. Not to minors or anything. But all that’s behind me, thanks to the long arm of the law.”
With a fit of glee, Eugene swatted the table top and pointed at Dad. “This man was a capitalist! No different from Rockefeller! Carnegie! Ford!”
Blushing, Dad held up both hands and said, “Guilty.”
Eugene took off his glasses and wiped them with a hanky. “Roger, surely you won’t mind if I see you as a microcosm of the bigger challenge?”
Dad smiled at the other men and said, “Long as it don’t get me arrested.”
“So, tell me about this job of yours.”
With an absence of spirit, Dad kept his remarks as brief as he could, for everyone but Eugene had heard his sad story many times over.
Next, after jotting a page worth of notes, Eugene turned to me.
“And Mick, I hope you’ve not lost your virginity to capitalism.”
Lou said, “Only if capitalism is another name for his own fist.”
The warehousemen laughed hard, and so did Dad, which inspired Lou to repeat his funny jab.
Eugene just tapped his pen on his yellow pad. I suppose his patience should not have surprised me; a man with the goal of converting a quarter-billion capitalists would need patience.
“He is girl crazy,” Dad said, loosening up a bit. “Can’t get his mind off naked girls.”
“How do you know?” I said.
“Because I was your age once.”
“As long as it’s girls in the plural, then we’re all right,” Eugene said to me. “You see, if you fall for one girl, that can lead to marriage, which leads to fatherhood, and fatherhood is synonymous with conservatism. And it all ends up leading to a big fit of desperation. Parents always become reactionary, do they not?”
“The boy just wants to get laid,” Lou said.
The first hint of frustration emerged in Eugene’s voice. “But it’s all integrated, don’t you see? Everything we do matters. Every move we make is a signal and a sign. Every cause has an effect. My point is, either we’re promoting social change or we’re the problem.”
Feeling somehow responsible for his vexation, I said, “If it makes you feel any better, getting tied down to one girl is the last thing on my mind. I want to play the field like crazy. My father taught me well.”
Toby said, “You see, the boy lost his mommy when he was still in diapers. Maybe he’s gun shy about lovin a woman and losin her and such.”
“You gun shy, Mick?” asked Bub.
“Boys your age usually seek out puppy love with one girl,” said Toby. “You talk like a guy who’s been burnt ten or twelve times by the ladies, like Lou here.”
Dad said, “Well, he’s read a lotta books. Some thick ones, too.”
“But most books end happily ever after,” Toby said. “You know what I mean? They end up with happy weddings and flower girls and such.”
Dad said, “Maybe he’s reading the wrong books then.”
Alone among us, Eugene seemed unduly fascinated by all of this; he kept checking the recorder to make sure its cassette was spinning.
Dad turned to him and said, “There happens to be a girl on our block that might be good for Mick, straight across the street from you. She’s that blonde thing, you know. All clean-lookin and dresses nice.”
“I haven't noticed,” said Eugene.
“But quality broads are trouble,” warned Lou, pointing so fiercely it made me flinch. “They make you behave and shit. They take away your manhood.”
I said, “Hold on, everyone. Emily is cute and all, but I’m not about to settle for one girl. I want to play the field for like fifty years.”
“I was sixteen when I got hitched,” Dad countered.
“I’m just not ready to work hard at relationships. Case closed, all right,” I said firmly.
Eugene clicked his pen and said, “Very enlightening debate. Some generational issues that I need to explore. But yes, I believe I’m getting my money’s worth.”
He then proceeded to speak more of himself, of how he studied culture, anthropology, anthropological culture, political theory, economics, history, and sociology. He said he had strong ideas about the way things were versus the way they should be. He promised historic changes were looming and that he was doing his part to speed them. Then he took out a folded sheet of notebook paper and asked me to read it. Written in spidery but legible print was the following:
“On the continent of Africa there dwell a unique tribe of pygmies that adhere to the purest of communal modalities. These natives live caste-free, as though one large, happy family. Everyone is equal. No one owns anything. Mercantilism is an unknown mode. No one or no thing is commodified. These people are the happiest of peoples on the face of the earth, and we can and will learn from them.”
When I finished, Eugene lunged forward. “My point is this: These pygmies prove the Western belief in the nuclear family is neither timeless nor universal, and that it’s not even the most effective societal mode.”
“What do those little folks have to do with America?” Toby asked, his beverage cup secured between his chin and the plateau of his belly.
“Nothing,” he replied. “That’s the problem. Everybody there works for the common good, and everyone belongs. No one is separated from the modes or the means of production. As a result, nobody there needs a psychiatrist or a priest or a Wal Mart or a damn rock & roll star.”
I watched Lou’s mouth form a question, and soon he raised his hand. “Why do the TV get to show us tribal ladies with their naked bosom, but you never see white lady nudity on TV except for Cinemax?”
Eugene rose and extended a forefinger. “Lou asked a credible question that goes to the core of paradigmatics and class and culture. The answer, when we get to it, will surprise you all.”
“Can’t you tell us now,” Lou asked.
“In due time.” Eugene turned off the recorder. “The things you will learn you must learn in the correct order if you ever hope to understand the big picture.”
“Who you think killed JFK?” Bub asked.
“That is not central just now.”
“Who here remembers what he was doin when news of that assassination came across?” asked Toby.
“I do,” said Bub, raising his hand. “I was eatin a peach and takin a leak.”
Eugene said, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut this session a bit short, but let’s return here in exactly two days. And to express my appreciation, here’s a down payment for each of you.” From the pocket of his trousers, he produced five twenties and distributed one to each of us. There were more smiles at that table than there were in heaven.
After Eugene was gone, Bub said, “That was fun.”
Toby tilted his cup to his mouth and tapped its bottom. Waiting for remaining shards of ice to slide down to his lips, he chuckled once and said, “Easy money.”