Quebec, where I’d spiked a plot against the life of the queen of England, had moved far closer to secession from the rest of Canada. Basque separatism flourished, and so, it now appeared, did separatist movements in Galicia and Cantalonia. There were strong pushes for autonomy for the Flemings in Belgium, and both Scottish and Welsh nationalism had heated up some, although the Cornish separatists seemed disappointingly docile.
On the other hand, some things hadn’t changed a bit. The United States, doing no end of business with such traditional allies as Hanoi and Bejing, continued its blockade of Castro’s Cuba. In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants kept up their reprise of the Thirty Years’ War, their version of which was outrunning the original.
And so on.
And then there were the deaths.
Well, hell. Twenty-five years. You have to expect a certain amount of mortality over that great a span of time. The bulk of the world’s leaders had been well along in years, and it wasn’t all that much of a surprise that they were no longer with us. Nixon was dead, and Agnew, and well, dozens of others. Jack Benny, that perennial thirty-nine-year-old, had left us not long after my body temperature plunged; George Burns, on the other hand, had lived to be a hundred. Francisco Franco was dead – evidently that had been taken up as a running gag on a television program. Evelyn Wood, inventor of speed-reading, was dead, too, and I wondered how long her funeral had taken. Two or three minutes, I thought, was how she would have wanted it.
The deaths of prominent persons struck me in a variety of ways. Many seemed both inevitable and appropriate. Some came as a shock, either because the person seemed far too young to die or because – like Franco, say – I’d somehow assumed he would live forever. But the sheer number of deaths was overwhelming. Over twenty-five years, one might have taken them in stride. When they came all at once, in a flood, they were enough to drown you.
Then there were the deaths I took personally. Friends, acquaintances. Fellow tenants and other people in the neighborhood. The owner of the deli at Broadway and 106th – I didn’t know his name, but one day he’d made me a sandwich (corned beef and Russian dressing on rye) and the next thing I knew he was ten years dead.
So many of my gay friends, dead of a disease that hadn’t even existed. Women I’d known, women I’d slept with, dead of breast cancer. The Grim Reaper, never less than up to date, had traded in his scythe for a power mower. He was cropping whole fields and cutting a wide swath through my world.
People I hadn’t even heard of, people who’d barely been around, performers and politicians who hadn’t yet stepped upon the stage twenty-five years ago, had left it forever. One day I’d learn their names in my relentless pilgrimage through Time and Newsweek, and a few days or weeks later I’d read that they had died. Sic transit gloria mundi. Sic transit everything.
It was, as Minna remarked, a real mind fuck. And those words, pronounced so trippingly on her tongue, were a mind fuck all by themselves. The eleven-year-old Minna I remembered would not have said them, but then again neither would a Minna grown to maturity in 1972. These days the nicest sort of woman said words formerly reserved for male company. They even said them in magazines and newspapers, and on television.
On the other hand, there were words you couldn’t say anymore, like Oriental and girl. I could sort of understand why women didn’t want to be called girls, although I didn’t see why they wanted to make such a fuss about it. (And they seemed to be making less of a fuss now than they had ten years ago.) But how did Oriental get to be a bad word?
“It’s a matter of political correctness,” Minna explained. “I thought about doing a thesis on it, but I was afraid it wouldn’t be politically correct itself. It’s fascistic, a sort of fascism of the academic left, and it’s all based on the idea that we need euphemisms to hide the fact that we know we’re superior.”
“ Superior to whom?”
“To the people we use euphemisms for,” she said. “Look how we keep changing what we call black people. First the polite thing to call them was colored people. Then it was Negro. Then that was an insult, and you had to call them Black.”
“And then that was wrong, or at least it wasn’t right enough, and the proper term was people of color.”
“What’s the difference between that and colored people?”
“I don’t know, Evan. I think people of color means anybody who isn’t white.”
“There’s a word for that,” I said, “assuming you absolutely require one.”
“That’s the one.”
“But then you’re defining people by what they’re not, and that’s supposed to be demeaning. Anyway, the current name for black people is African-American.”
“Because that had its turn a while back, although it never did catch on in a big way. African-American? That’s seven syllables.”
“Black is only one syllable. I have a hunch I know which one I’ll be using.”
“African-American might last,” she said. “Because it’s so cumbersome most people won’t use it. As long as most people don’t use it, it can remain politically correct.”
“The whole point,” she said, “is to show that you’re not like other European-Americans, and that you don’t-”
“European-Americans? White folks?”
“Right, people of non-color. You’re not like them, and you don’t call black people by the same insulting term they do.”
“Insulting because they use it.”
“Exactly. Once all the rednecks start calling blacks African-Americans, the P.C. people will have to come up with something else. But that may not happen for a while, because African-American is such an awkward phrase to say.”
“Especially for a redneck,” I said. “Speaking of which, how do they feel about being called rednecks?”
“I don’t think they give a fuck,” Minna said, “but I don’t think it’s because they’re more enlightened than everybody else. I don’t think they’re paying attention.”
“Well, good for them,” I said.
It’s a damn good thing I didn’t have to sleep. Twenty-four hours a day was little enough time for all I had to do. I don’t know how the rest of the world makes do with sixteen.
It was all I could do to get through my cram course in the final quarter of the twentieth century, but that wasn’t the only thing on my plate. I also had to play catch-up with my own life. That meant finding out what remained of the various political movements in which I had participated, and renewing my ties with whatever fellow members I could track down. (And, while I was at it, renewing the memberships themselves, after all those years during which I’d gone without paying a forint or a zloty or a dinar in dues.)
Here again, death had taken its toll. Some old comrades had gone gently, while others had been untimely ripped from this world and flung into the next. Many more had simply disappeared, nudged by time or fortune out of the political orbit in which I’d encountered them.
But some remained, and some were glad to hear from me, and responded by letter or fax (fax!) or E-mail ([email protected] /* */ ). And they referred me to other kindred spirits, and, bit by bit and person by person, I began to reconnect myself to the world.
At the same time, I had a living to make.
I’ve never really held a job, so I didn’t lose one when I went into cold storage. Ever since my army days, I’d supported myself in the shadow world of ex-officio academia. A high school dropout myself, I had never been to college. But over the years, I’d got a lot of other people through.
I’d written term papers and theses. Early on I’d even take exams for students – finals at Columbia and NYU, LSAT’s for people who inexplicably longed to be lawyers.
I gave that up when the march of time left me looking a bit advanced in years to be in an undergraduate exam room. The proctors were starting to look closely at me, and I decided I didn’t need the pressure.
But I had a good business turning out term papers in virtually any area of the humanities. If your field was science I couldn’t help you at all, but in literature or history or philosophy I was your man, and I’d deliver on schedule and guarantee a B. (No extra charge if the professor gave us an A, and your money cheerfully refunded if we got a C or less.)
It was a nice way to make a living. Sometimes I got to recycle my efforts – it was safe and ethically sound, say, to adapt for NYU a paper I’d done for Columbia – but most of what I did was one-time-only, so I was forever learning and writing about something new. The research was a pleasure and the writing came easy, so it was the ideal situation for me.
But now it was 1997, and I felt like the messenger services must have felt after everybody in New York got a fax machine. Because my line of work was outmoded.
It wasn’t that students had suddenly turned honest, and it wasn’t that educators had finally figured out how to keep students from presenting others’ work as their own. But what had once been a cottage industry for a handful of enterprising freelancers had become Big Business. A couple of outfits operated nationally, purporting to offer “term paper assistance,” and in fact offering term papers, impure and simple, on an entire catalog of subjects. They would even give it to you on disk, so you could personalize it with a few awkward sentences of your own, reformat it in the style preferred by your particular institution of learning, and print it out and turn it in.
Since they could sell the same paper over and over, dozens upon dozens of times, they could offer their wares at attractively reasonable prices. It was, in fact, a wonder that any college student went to the trouble of doing his own work. It wasn’t cost-effective, if you stopped to think about it. With what you had to pay to go to a decent college, why not pay a few dollars more to be sure of a good grade? And look at the time you’d save, and think what you could do with it.
I suppose I could have knocked out term papers for the catalog outfits. They needed new work all the time. But my gorge rose at the very thought. It was like putting a man who did custom coachwork on the assembly line at the Ford plant. Thanks, but I don’t think so.
But you couldn’t ring an 800-number and order up a master’s or doctoral thesis, and that was the sort of work I preferred, anyway. With a thesis you could dig in and buckle down and really produce something. I might fabricate some of the footnotes – one doesn’t want to approach scholarship with too much in the way of reverence – but I did good work all the same. And, without any real effort on my part, I found myself back in business. I got a phone call one afternoon from a young man named David Van Sumner. The name rang a bell, and I soon found out why.
“My father suggested I give you a ring,” he said. “Bruce Van Sumner? You did some work for him in 1968 or 9. That was a while ago, I wouldn’t expect you to remember, but-”