I have just finished reading a very disturbing article by a woman named Mary Eberstadt. If the article is any indication she has a job I do not think a sewer worker would enjoy. After reading it I had some recollections and reactions.
When I was a youngster, about 5, 6 or 7 years old, I cannot now recall, I remember discovering something; well discovering two things in one, both a thing and a feeling. We were spending the summer at the Jersey shore. I had wandered down the little road to a patch of woods not far away and walked into them. Not too far in I saw a small box and picked it up. Opening it I saw what I thought were little white balloons. These were a find for a little kid, and I raced home to share them with my bigger brother.
They were too small to blow up, but we walked around for a while with them on our fingers. Then we grew tired and discarded them. My father, when he came home later, was disturbed and upset at finding them and learning we had been playing with them. He quickly disposed of them all. In his most stern voice, he took us aside and told us never to have anything to do with those objects. They were not “good”. I remember the word to this day, and my sense of shame attached to the knowledge that i had handled something that was not “good”.
Years later I discovered that they were condoms. Well, discovered is probably the wrong word to use. I came to the conclusion, based on anecdotal evidence, that that is what I had found when I strayed off the path a little bit into the woods on a summer day in New Jersey long years before and picked up something bright and attractive. We called them “rubbers”, and my best friend Eddie H. was the one who told me about them. Though I had seen them by their thousands floating in the sewage outflows in the Harlem River, I had never made the connection between “rubbers”, used to prevent babies being made, and those things that horrified my father.
I do remember being a little afraid of the knowledge Eddie gave me. You are entitled to ask why. I can’t answer clearly. It all had to do with the mystery surrounding life, and the dangers of being grown up and responsible, I think, the trouble one could get into. Finally it had to do with my father’s description of them as not “good”. These things were off the safe path for me, in the woods, dark and unknown.
Not long after that, another friend, John R., showed me one of them. He carried it in his wallet, “just in case.” We were about 13. Most of the kids wanted one. But then, most of the kids wanted cars and none of them knew how to drive.
Danny M. knew how to drive. He stole cars, and wound up arrested for the fleeting pleasure of a joy ride. Freddy R., perhaps the wildest and most dangerous guy in my neighborhood, wanted money. He stole money and went to prison for a few years. I admired, or is the proper word envied, both of them for their daring, but their troubles scared me.
Anyway, we knew that “rubbers” could be had from “Doc” Portnoy, the guy who owned the drugstore. But, you had to ask for them, and knowing “Doc” to be the kind of guy he was, we figured you’d probably be told to go away, you were too young. The next thing would be “Doc” telling your mother or father all about it, and the beating. And, suppose, you did get one? What then? Most of us didn’t even have wallets. I remember getting my first wallet when I started high school. I carried my library card and my bus pass in it, and that was all it held for several years. Other things, a snapshot, the odd receipt, the phone numbers of friends, girls I met at dances, found their way into my wallet, never a “rubber”.
I have never liked the word “condom”. I think it is an ugly thing describing another ugly thing with what at some level I have always thought of as an ugly purpose. None of the words which signify that thing and its purpose are pretty words, pretty terms. They conjure secrets, lies, doctor’s offices, dangerous journeys. To be honest, I have never liked the look of them either. I used to wonder how one was able to work at a place which made them, how one was able to accept the money used to buy them, how one turned off one’s internal shudder of revulsion at the whole concept of them.
It must be nearly thirty or forty years now since they first began appearing on the shelves of pharmacies, thirty or forty years since we decided as a society that, as I see it, life mattered less and our own pleasure mattered more. I am still not able to notice those displays without that little shudder, without thinking they are an offense against that queer word, decency, that queer concept, self-control.
Now, in the name of self-abandonment in all of its worse meanings something new assaulted me the other day as I walked down the aisle towards the counter in my local Rite-Aid store to pick up a prescription. It could not have been avoided since it had been placed below the counter with all of the other paraphernalia displayed.
What was “IT”? It was a kit, a do it yourself kit for home STD testing. It was at the end of the row stuffed with contraceptive devices of various kinds and home pregnancy tests. Three words passed through my mind in quick succession. “This is progress?”
Three more words followed on them. Selfishness. Disease. Death.
A last word came to me as I walked out of the store. Lies.
We tell them to ourselves and anyone else who will listen as we stroll off the path into the woods.