“What are you doing home?” It was late afternoon. My father sat in his place on the couch, reading the newspaper, television blaring.
“I came home early today. Is that okay with you?” he said.
“I’m just not used to seeing you home this early.”
“It’s your mother’s birthday. We’re taking her to Red Lobster. What’s that crap on your face?”
“Oh, Sherri was messing around and she put some eyeliner on me.”
“Well tell Sherri it looks ridiculous.”
I went downstairs to my bedroom and put on King Crimson’s Discipline.
Talk, it’s only talk…
Discipline was an unintentionally ironic purchase. Sherri and I had a pregnancy scare a few months earlier that sent me mentally scrambling twenty hours per day. What were we going to do, and whatever we did how would we afford it? I obsessively counted what little money I had, even ironing my bills so that they would stack neatly.
When the bubble burst I was so relieved that I ran out and bought a record: King Crimson, Discipline. If this was fiction I’d kick my own ass for picking such a Dickensian title for the celebration of a tardy period.
Until this moment I hadn’t given much thought to the “out of touch with the common man” allegations leveled at presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Off of the top of my head I can’t think of a single personal acquaintance who hasn’t at some point been so hard up for cash that he or she literally counted pennies. In those moments the desire to splurge is strong because one simply can’t. There’s no money for music, a movie, even a cheeseburger, so we sit and eat ramen noodles and count and sweat and hope everything will work out.
I don’t know whether that’s good, bad, or just is. All I know is that it has been my observation of the American experience over these last forty-five years: at some point everybody struggles. Even as a kid I knew there were other American experiences, other extremes, but for my friends and neighbors this was an immutable truth. I knew that there were generations of wealthy who wore white until Labor Day and golfed with Judge Smails, and I knew that there were others who only knew struggle, and that I was lucky to be in the middle.
Sharecropper shacks still stood (barely) on the back roads of the Piedmont, along with the dilapidated mill hills left behind when the textile mills shuttered their factories. Some of these places had plastic sheets for windows. If my father spotted a decent car in the yard or a television antenna on the tin roof he would launch into a rant. “They don’t have money to get out of that shitbox but they can afford a TV? I don’t understand these people.”
But I understood. When you have nothing something like a television or a car that runs or even a record works as a tether to the society at large. If you’ve been there you know exactly what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t you may think that I’m excusing people who lack discipline.
Discipline. The only constant in the King Crimson story is Robert Fripp, who has been a member of every line-up since the band’s formation in the late sixties. All eras of Crimson are interesting, but I gravitate toward the eighties line-up of Fripp, Adrien Belew, Tony Levin, and Bill Bruford. Their three albums together — Discipline, Beat, and Three Of A Perfect Pair — are as good as they come. They’re worth picking up for Levin’s bass and stick work alone.
Anyway, the record spun and Adrien told me it’s only talk and I wiped off my eyeliner and looked for a pair of jeans to throw on for our fancy night out at the Red Lobster. That was fine dining in my small town, even for those of us with glass windows. For the folks on the mill hills it must have been like Spago. Now hold on. You mean I get to keep the lighthouse glass?
I’d always considered Red Lobster classy, too. A big old lobster tail and a slab of steak on the same plate? Glasses shaped like buildings? Surely this was how presidents dined. At least Taft.
But the facade cracked that afternoon. I couldn’t reconcile the odd time signatures and ambient textures of Discipline with a restaurant decorated with nets, starfish, and ship wheels. The absurdity of King Crimson playing in that environment exposed The Lobster as the tacky, strip mall pseudo-experience that it is.
But it didn’t matter anyway. When I got back upstairs I found my mother alone on her end of the couch, my father nowhere in sight.
“What time are we leaving?” I asked.
“What? Why not?”
She sighed. “Your father says he won’t be seen in public with a faggot,” she said.
She looked very sad. I guess she must have really wanted that lighthouse glass.
I share with you that tentative happiness of being in the middle. I struggle, but not constantly. There are fairly good times and seemingly endless periods of penny-pinching discomfort.
Your dad, eh? What a piece of work.
That’s my father at a moment in time. We’ve all done things we regret.