W ith lakes, swimming holes, rivers, and pools beckoning, I went to a sporting goods chain store at the mall — where else? — seeking a new bathing suit (pardon the quaint locution). The store was curiously named Dick’s. All they had were clown trunks. By this I mean a garment designed to hang somewhere around mid-calf, instantly transforming a normally-proportioned adult male into a stock slapstick character: the oafish man-child.
This being a commodious warehouse-style store, there was rack upon rack of different brands of bathing suits, all cut in the same clown style. I chanced by one of the sparsely-deployed employees and inquired if they had any swimming togs in a shorter cut.
“What you see is alls we got,” he said.
Even the Speedo brand had gone clown — except for the bikini brief, which I wore back during 30 years of lap-swimming, but which I deemed not quite okay for an elderly gentleman on the casual summer swim scene. So I left Dick’s without a new suit, but not before having a completely unsatisfying conversation with one of the managers.
“In the old days,” I explained, “bathing suits were designed to minimize the amount of cloth one dragged around in the water. These clown trunks you sell not only make a person look ridiculous, but they must be an awful drag in the water.”
“That’s what they send us,” he said. “It’s alls we got.”
The Fourth of July rolled in just in time to celebrate the disintegration of Iraq following our eight-year, three trillion dollar campaign to turn it into a suburb of Las Vegas. Me and my girl went over to the local fireworks show, held on the ballfield of a fraternal order lodge on the edge of town. The fire department had hung up a gigantic American Flag — like, fifty feet long! — off the erect ladder of their biggest truck, in case anybody forgot what country they were in. Personally, I was wondering what planet I was on. It was a big crowd, and every male in it was dressed in a clown rig.
The complete outfit, which has (oddly) not changed in quite a few years (suggesting the tragic trajectory we’re on), includes the ambiguous long-short pants, giant droopy T- shirt (four-year-olds have proportionately short legs and long torsos), “Sluggo” style stubble hair, sideways hat (or worn “cholo” style to the front ), and boat-like shoes, garments preferably all black, decorated with death-metal band logos. You can see, perhaps, how it works against everything that might suggest the phrase: “competent adult here.” Add a riot of aggressive-looking tattoos in ninja blade and screaming skull motifs and you get an additional message: “sociopathic menace, at your service.” Finally, there is the question: just how much self-medication is this individual on at the moment? I give you: America’s young manhood.
Does it seem crotchety to dwell on appearances? Sorry. The public is definitely sending itself a message disporting itself as it does in the raiment of clowning. Here in one of the “fly-over” zones of America — 200 miles north of New York City — the financial economy is mythical realm like Shangri-La and the real economy is somewhere between the toilet and a rat hole. Under the tyranny of chain stores, there really is no true local commercial economy. The few jobs here are menial and nearly superfluous to the automatic workings of the giant companies.
I don’t have the statistics but I suspect a lot of the males around here are on federal disability payments, and probably in the psychological categories including “depression,” “learning disabilities,” “ADHD, and so on.” In such a situation, wouldn’t a person benefit from presenting himself as child-like, with a dash of menace? And wouldn’t it be advantageous to look that way all of the time, in case one was unexpectedly visited by a government employee?
Down in Brooklyn, a world away, the young men go about in their hipster uniforms: Pee Wee Herman cut casuals. They’re still role-playing “the smart kid in the class” even though they’ve been out of class for a decade. Their computer dreams of IPO glory are formulated with the tunnel-vision of science fair projects. Left out are the realities of the greater unraveling.
Women are not at the center of this story. Theirs is another story. Let some woman tell it before I get to it.
Never has a society entered an epochal transition with such unpreparedness.
Never has a society appeared so childishly decadent.
Coming in August
World Made By Hand 3
Published as an E-book for the first time!
The 20th Anniversary edition
With an entertaining new introduction by the author
Bargain Price $3.99