It was not necessarily the men who he saw sleeping on Taylor Street, it was instead a man walking, and not even the men walking with packs on their shoulders and the clean tanned look of San Francisco hoboes, since there was still something romantic about such men in those days. It was, rather, the men who looked like they had some kind of home in the Tenderloin, who carried an aloneness in their walk, not surprised about their aloneness at all, just honest, it seemed. Honest about the impossibility of relationships in the Tenderloin because ha ha, what were you going to do, go home and say, hello, honey, let me tell you about the size of the roaches I saw just outside our door today? Then what? Shall we sweep the roaches aside and make a little home of love here among this infinite lostness, honey? And then the impossibility in the Tenderloin became an impossibility in the world, because you could leave for another place in the world, but the Tenderloin would still be there.
And he thought of his father, and of how he had always thought as a boy that a man was a family thing, and he thought that the next time he went home, he would tell his father that he knew now that a man was not a family thing, that he was not firstly a family thing at least. There was his father and there was Toby Haggerty’s father and there was Evan Kobak’s father and they had all stood outside in the evening watering the lawn in shorts, they had all driven the boys to ball games and stood quietly on the side, and he wanted to tell them all—though most of all he wanted to tell his own father—that he had seen now how a man was not a family thing, he was under no illusions about that, because the Tenderloin was the world and the world was the Tenderloin.
He was a teacher and he could go home in summer, at Thanksgiving, at Christmas, and once in the spring, and before each trip, he told himself, this time when I go home, I am going to tell him of what I have seen, I am going to tell him I have seen what a man is, and he did not know himself if he was telling his father with recrimination or with sympathy, but it didn’t matter either way, because each time he came home and felt the soft air of Maysburg and saw the sky from his old bedroom window and the quiet streets of home, he lost the urgency to tell his father that he knew that a man was not a family thing––that he was instead always a wanderer, no matter where he lived, and that the men he saw in the Tenderloin were only articulating in their head-down walk something that was true for all men, and at home in Maysburg he would look out his window at night and know that man was a wanderer, but he would look for the need to tell his father about it and he could not find it. Until he came back to San Francisco and to his room in the Tenderloin, and the urge would be there again right where he’d left it, only stronger, strong enough that when he saw the fathers come to pick up their children after school, sometimes even a father and mother coming together and walking out of the schoolyard gate with their child in their afternoon, he would think––don’t be fooled. Don’t be fooled because those solitary men are wandering at this very moment in the Tenderloin. They are burning there, they are walking in a clear-eyed way, they have not been made soft by the assumption that a man is meant to be a family thing. He is meant to be anything at all, if you are going to take an honest look at it, and he would tell himself again––this time when I go home, I am going to tell him, and there won’t be any anger to it at all, just a clear acknowledgement of the facts: You want women? Okay, a man can have women. You want children? Okay, he can teach them in a classroom. But he has to be able to walk through the streets of the world at night without the urge to hide from any of it. I am not saying this because I don’t appreciate you, Pop. I’m just telling you what I see.
But back home his father would go outside in the evening and water the lawn in his shorts, and it did not matter then if a man was a family thing or not, he only knew that he could not say it to his father, and then it seemed like what good was it to take a firm stance in the city if you couldn’t handle coming home and saying it out loud? How could all of that essential vision disappear when he came home?
And so there was a year that he did not come home.
He did not come home once in the spring. He did not come home in the summer or at Thanksgiving or at Christmas. He made up a different reason each time and his mother grew sad and his father grew quiet. He did not tell them the real reason––that he was tired of being turned upside down. And he made a special point of walking in the streets of the Tenderloin on Thanksgiving and Christmas to see the true loneliness of man.
It is a lie to say that today is the true family day, he thought on Christmas Day. It is a lie if it is not true for everyone. He went inside a bar near his room where there were men for whom it was not true. They had tried to make the place look like Christmas. As soon as he went in, he thought that he should not start talking with anyone, because if he did, the truth might come out that he had a family at home, that he had a mother and father waiting for him. I have to have one Christmas like this, he thought angrily. The anger was directed at his father and he was not sure if it was a boy’s anger or a man’s anger, but he wished that his father had at least presented him with an alternative perspective. He knew his father must have wondered about it too. He wished his father had said to him––I’ve made myself a family thing, but it is work, son. I am sorry if that work kept me from showing you that along with being a family thing, a man is also not a family thing. I am sorry for not telling you both, so that you would be ready for the fight, so that it would not come to you as a surprise.
So that’s it, huh, he thought. You are angry at your father because of what he left out, because there were aspects of his fatherhood that left out the entirety of the whole world? That’s your beef, huh? If that’s your complaint, then you are still a child. You are a fool and a child, because it is nobody’s job to be everything, and he thought then that this was what you got for being a good father––the outsized expectation that you were also supposed to tell your son about a fatherless world, a world where men could not think past their own survival. And he thought of Toby Haggerty’s father and Evan Kobak’s father and how they had told their sons that the world was not fair, and for the first time he wondered if it would have been good if his father had spoken to him like that as well, rather than to have given him the notion that the world could be made fair, and he felt a great shame to think it, a shame that he almost thought the men in the bar on Christmas could see, and if they could, he wanted to make sure they were seeing the right one, because there were any number of shames that might come up at a time like that, but he wanted to make sure they saw the right one. It’s the best shame in the world, he thought. A shame I’m almost proud of feeling––the shame of wishing my father had told me that a man was a very big thing and a very small thing, because now I see how to me his fatherhood made him big, and yet he never once used his fatherhood as a weapon against me, to keep from feeling small. And he could’ve, just as some fathers have done, because the world gave him reasons to feel small. America gave him reasons, and Maysburg gave him reasons, and he never once said, let me use my fatherhood to hide from all that. This is the thanks he gets––a son who stays away at Christmas because he doesn’t know how to ask if a man is a family thing.
He stood up and went outside, and there in the quiet Christmas streets, he wondered if he could really bear the answer if he were to ask his father, if he could bear the answer that his father might tell him that it was neither and it was both, that a man was completely and utterly a family thing and he was not a family thing at all, because the way his father hadn’t said anything when he’d told them he wasn’t coming home for Christmas made him understand that his father was holding those men too, he was holding the solitary men of the Tenderloin too, he was holding them when he came outside to water the lawn in the evening. His father didn’t have to see a single one of those men with his own eyes to be holding them. He remembered them from his own streets of life. They had been different men in different cities, but that did not matter very much. And after life had arranged itself in a way to allow him to shape his manhood into a family thing, he had not forgotten them. He had not forgotten that they were out there, and perhaps they were dreaming of shaping their manhood into a family thing and perhaps they were not, but he had held their dreaming either way, and the simple truth of it was that if you were actively engaged in holding the dreaming of other men, you did not have time to tell your son that the world was not fair, and as he walked he silently thanked his father over and over for giving him the gift of saying––I don’t know, I don’t know what a man is. I don’t know if a man is a family thing or not. He thanked his father over and over for standing silently outside in the evenings and giving him the question.
Cover Art by Azzah Sultan