Marks of Memory

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Such grace eludes me. Though now in my 40’s and the beneficiary of such shaving innovations as double, triple and quadruple-edged blades replete with lubricated strips, and myriad drugstore emulsions that promise an experience akin to orgasm, I still manage to gash my face once a week. It’s then, as my trusty wad of toilet paper staves off another gush of blood, that I curse this legacy, part of the devil’s pact that boys sign at the onset of adolescence.

A while back, though, a forgotten piece of his hand-me down wisdom surfaced while shaving. As I pursed my lips to clear the bristle below my mouth, I discovered a startling absence: a scar about the length of my thumbnail had disappeared. No doubt 32 years of chapping and biting had worn away the laceration to the extent that what remained was a blurred wrinkle blending into the lower lip’s surface. My fingertip found a vague lump, but this tactile trace gave scant comfort.

A piece of my legacy was lost. My scars help me keep track—of people, events and eras. They chart the everyday, the remarkable, the best and worst of my evolving selves; they embody James Baldwin’s idea of inheritance, “what time, circumstance, history, have made of me.” Unlike eye color or baldness, they won’t be passed on to any heirs. My marks live on me alone and when I die, so will they: a one-time-only deal.

More potent than photographs: the tiny petal shaped scar at the corner of my left eye hints at my post-toddler self. I lived at 521 Ringgold, a four block long hill of a street where my family rented half of a two family house in the Mt. Auburn section of Cincinnati. I got that mark the summer I turned five while picking crabapples in the neighborhood park up the street, the unintentional target of someone’s hurled stone. The mark serves as a reminder of luscious never-ending summers, and the filial bonds I shared with older siblings who were my entire world before we grew up. Such a idealized moment in time, but one I forever strive to recreate—with my friends especially, the “family” of my own making.

I earned the now faint crosshatch of skin on my left index finger not long after. It was Valentine’s Day, and our first-grade class was hard at work making red heart-shaped pouches of construction paper and yarn. Waiting for the hole-punch, I seized on the bright idea of using scissors. The bright idea turned to folly once I plunged the scissor points through the paper—right into my index finger. As blood smeared my hands, the desk and the charming red paper pouch my mother would never see, the room erupted in chaos.

Within seconds, my poor teacher wrapped my finger in a wad of brown paper towels, and soon we were running down the long main corridor of Taft Elementary School, my paw engulfed by both of hers as I fought to keep up, my feet barely touching the hallway’s shiny floor. I’ll never forget her glistening forehead plastered with brown curls, nor her face shattered with unmistakable fear. The idea that grownups could be afraid disturbed me as much as the sight of my own blood spotting the cuff of my sherbet green V-neck; that afternoon, along with my new awareness I earned a big white bandage that got me lots of attention.

Age has deepened the 2 inch brown blur next to the mole on my right shoulder. In the fourth grade, I fractured my arm on a school field trip; no sooner had it healed, did summer’s idleness spur a new mishap. One laundry day the chugging gulps of my mother’s wringer washing machine called from our basement like an alluring siren’s call. Under a bare light bulb I ran old scraps of paper through the wringer as I’d watched my mother do countless times, and on one of those passes I forgot to let go: in no time my arm was on the other side, the rollers burning a bruise into my scrawny bicep as my shoulder ground against the release lever. My screams brought my mother, her best friend and what seemed the whole neighborhood. When my sister Gail blurted “It’s gonna come off,” my screams turned to howls, and as the pain and discomfort reached its peak, down the cellar stairs stomped my savior.
To the kids on our block Mr. Doddy was the neighborhood eccentric: not only was he a black man so light skinned we first mistook him for white, but two of his fingers were missing. He ran the penny candy store across the street—if you were a kid with an allowance, his shop was your second home, so I got to know his hairy nubs as well as the rainbow-hued Tootsie Pops I craved. Dragged by my brother Jeffrey, this mythic creature filled our basement with an aggression filtered through Coke bottle-thick eyeglasses. Brandishing a crowbar, he brushed my mother aside and pried the jaws of the wringer open.

Wet, bawling, smothered by my mother’s embrace, I ascended the basement stairs to the sound of sirens and barking voices. Our block was packed with gleaming red fire engines and police cars. As it turned out, Jeffrey managed to pull the fire alarm on the corner before rousing Mr. Doddy, and I could have hugged him for bringing what felt like a parade, an event only sweetened by a ride to the hospital in a police car. My little accident not only created community chaos; it also brought the first memory of my mother in tears.

My adventures in shaving began 4 years later. It would be some time before my face toughened enough to deflect the thick spears of hair that grew back into the skin’s surface. Ingrown hairs were the bane of my young teen years. Depilatories helped prevent the scarring bumps to a degree, but those chemical pastes whose fumes reeked of rotting eggs also skinned my face raw. The resulting dark flesh marked me both culturally and racially: passing other black men in the street, the drugstore burns etched like brown continents on our jaws encourage a deeper bonding than those by-now-meaningless shouts of “Hey, Brother.”

One scar hides from my scrutiny. To see it I have to look over my shoulder into a mirror, a move that always cramps my neck. Though I know it came from a whipping I can’t remember what exactly wrought such a blow: was it the time I set off a firecracker in the kitchen of our two-story storefront home? Or was it a minor thing, such as my tendency to “lollygag” instead of coming when I was called? It had to have happened in the warmer months, probably summer when I would have been wearing less. And the welt is thin, a mark likely made by a switch.

No doubt I picked it myself. That was part of the punishment, and as I’d strip and shuck branches from the honeysuckle bushes behind our garage my tortured mind would reel with anticipation at the variables of what was to come: how long the whipping would last and if it would hurt as much as before. My legs and arms would get the brunt—would I remember to twist enough that the back of my thighs would be spared so I’d at least be able to sit down afterwards? And depending on what stupid thing I’d done, would I get whipped by my mother—and my father, once he got home?

I couldn’t know that once I became sexually active, this scar would accrue a slightly skewered weight. While a few lovers found the mark merely sexy, my black lovers dismissed the discovery with a commiserating shrug, a nod to what our folks inherited from their folks who, I guess, learned it on the plantation. When a white lawyer I was dating spied the scar for the first time, what followed were thundering judgments about my upbringing and the barbarism of certain “cultures.” I also failed to absorb other red lights, like the night his Philippine colleague dressed him down after his bitchy critique of a co-worker’s accent. Chalk it up to denial, for after a string of dating failures my determination to make the relationship work so blinded me that I overlooked his digs, leveled at everyone from Hispanic housewives to the Chinese vendors we passed on our walks along Canal Street. Eventually other aspects of his personality—arrogance and a tendency to criticize my friends—made me call it quits. That I stayed as long as I did said more about the lovelorn depths to which I’d descended than the character deficiencies of a man who thought such racist bon mots made him witty.

●●●

I take comfort in Joaquin Phoenix’s cleft palate. To me, the rock singer Seal’s shiny scars, the result of discoid lupus, evoke a majesty redolent of ancient tribal ritual. Their marks are like tattoos, ones that transcend conventional traits of beauty. The owners wear them with pride; their comfort with what surely would have repelled an earlier generation of fans could either be attributed to their undeniable talent, or present-day society’s willingness to accept, and look beyond the surface of things. When writer and performer Tina Fey refuses to discuss the gangster’s moll scar on her cheek except to say that whatever caused it disturbs her parents to this day, the mystique supersedes the flaw. The mark makes the actor exotic, implying a depth absent from their Stepford counterparts.

As a young actor I discovered that such character-defining marks weren’t always welcome. I can hear the sneering assessment of one photographer who’d come highly recommended by another actor: “If you can’t cover it with makeup, we’ll have to retouch it.” He was referring to the eye “petal”, a blunt assessment that threw me off-guard. I felt the mark was integral to my appearance, as self-defining as the color of my skin or the kink of my hair. My naïveté hadn’t allowed that, in the stillness of a photo, this tiny defect might prove a colossal distraction. Whatever aesthetic potential my face held would surely disappear in the face of such disfigurement.

Inevitably my multitude of nicks and bruises outstrip the memory of how or when they occurred. Like asexual reproduction, recent scrapes crowd the faded and forgotten; acne breakouts on my forehead vie with the shaving rash and the occasional cold sore for a position of prominence; old knee surgery incisions jockey alongside the gash inexplicably created by kicking my own ankle as I dashed for the train.

It’s the difference between light comedy and wrenching drama. The new scars join the slice on my right index knuckle, a souvenir from the summer of 1976 when I played a gangster named Snake Eyes in the musical Girl Crazy; even now I can hear that audience member’s gasp when I pulled the offending switchblade. They crowd the odd, stretched patch on my wrist acquired when, as a 3-year-old dervish, I careened into some adult’s lit cigarette. The scratch on my right wrist bone, the calloused palm, the reappearing blood blister on my left baby finger—all are clues to both the fleeting, and the pivotal moments in my life.

The departed lip scar marked another. Like most guys in the Midwest, I earned my driver’s license at the age of 16, but this rite of passage mattered little to me. To me, a car was no different than a house, and I associated both with the world of adults. I was in no hurry to join that tribe; I had enough responsibility just keeping my grades up. Books and my imagination were the extent of my wanderlust, and I was content to experience the world through them. Besides, I liked riding the bus.

My father balked. His black-framed glasses held me in their glare as he pinned me down: “What in the hell was wrong with you?” The subtext: How could I not want to drive? Why didn’t I want to be like my brothers, or other boys? If I’d been a sassier kid, I might have said those guys had a pretty unnatural fixation on the blaxploitation films of the early seventies, the ones with titles like Superfly and Black Shampoo. Flashy cars figured prominently in those cinematic tales of drugs, shootouts and fast women forever falling out of their dresses. All the guys my age wanted to mimic that culture, one that seemed ridiculous to me, but I didn’t have the guts to tell my father this. Eventually my father laid down the law—after getting a learner’s permit in the late fall of my junior year, he became my primary driving teacher.

We’d go out 3 nights a week. I’d come home after my part-time job, and at around 9pm, his sharp bright yell roused me with a businesslike “c’mon, let’s go.” He’d drive me out to one of the city’s shopping centers in his red Plymouth station wagon; by that hour they’d be closed, and on some great vacant expanse of cement I got to take the wheel. His words punctuated the night’s gloom: “Turn left.” “Watch your speed, now.” “Too much gas…and don’t ever let me see you driving with one hand.” On rainy or icy nights he’d make me force the car into a skid so I’d learn to pull out and right myself, as if I were on some hypothetical frozen highway. Nothing filled me with more fear; I loathed the sound of the wheel’s shiny gravelly skid, and how I jolted in my seat when he’d bark, “Now hit the brake hard.” I’d breathe a sigh when those sessions ended, and raise a silent cheer when the forecast vowed no precipitation.

Commands, instructions, admonishments and warnings: whether it was driving instruction or daily interaction, our communication rested on those precepts, as close as he and I ever got to conversation. It was the opposite with other grownups—with them I conversed with an effusiveness my father read as familiarity, the ultimate breach of respect. Our nights spent turning, braking, parallel parking in vacant lots were marked by big holes of our familiar silence, yet I felt close to him then, more so than at any other time in our lives. Staring ahead into the night, he and I were a family of two, not ten, and despite whatever ambivalence I had about learning to drive, what oddly peaceful nights they were as I basked in his focused attention. He was past fifty when I was born, too weary with work and age to toss a ball or suffer that talk about sex. But he loved to drive, and in that willingness to share his passion we bonded as much as we ever would out there in the dark suburban cold, the punishing quiet broken only by the car heater’s whooshing hum.

Soon after I got my license I inherited a car. It was a hand me down from my brother Alan, a pinkish, rusted-around-the-edges 1963 Rambler. A puny car: slow, with hardly any pickup at all, its bucket seats were covered in vinyl upholstery meant to approximate the look of tweed. It was also noisy, and my older sister Gail chidingly christened it “the putt-putt.” What a mongrel compared to my mother’s sage green Covair or my father’s hulking “Big Red”; it was closer to a go-cart than a real car and therein laid its personal appeal. I could minimize whatever lurking fears I had by treating it like a pet: here was the dog I never had, and I let myself believe the responsibility of keeping its oil checked and its gas tank full was no different from opening a can of Alpo or replenishing a water dish.

The accident happened in the middle of the school day. With my best friend Philip and my girlfriend Sharen along for the ride, I’d driven across town for fast-food burgers and fries. Against school rules, sure, but people with cars left the grounds all the time—fleeing the cafeteria fare was a potent motive—and it was only a problem if you got back late. Philip and I were part of that pack, but this was the first time Sharen tagged along. Within blocks of leaving the restaurant, she spilled her Coke on the floor and I leaned over to help mop it up. Everything happened fast, and all at once: the explosion of banging fenders, my face crashing into the steering wheel, Sharen’s head hitting the windshield with a thudding hollow pop.

The rest of the afternoon was vague with the blur of cops, tow trucks and the remarkable calm of the young blond woman whose car I rear-ended. After Sharen was taken to the hospital, after the calls to our parents and the principal of our school, I somehow made it to our family’s house, not three blocks from where the collision occurred. There I sat in our living room cowed by an overwhelming sense of dread and shame. I was terrified by the enormity of what almost happened: what if I had gone into the intersection instead of rear-ending the stopped car, what if we’d been killed. Over and over I replayed my stupidity: I took my eyes off the road, I left school when I shouldn’t have, I took off my seat belt to clean up the soda.

And then my father came home. He took my head in his hand and tilted my face to get a look at the gash. Satisfied that I’d live, he asked me about Sharen. I didn’t know anything except that she’d been taken to Good Samaritan Hospital. “And you haven’t been over to see her? Boy, you better git up off that couch! Yo’ brother’ll take you over there.” I did as I was told. There’d be plenty of time for self-flagellation, but not now. Rightly, he recognized what I couldn’t, the importance of doing the right thing, of owning up to my mistake. It was the day I put away childish things. My father made me grow up, and made me see that sometimes the world was bigger than my own misery.

It was a larger lesson that the one that currently haunts my morning ablutions: you have to shave every day. Like my father’s, my jaw is darker, evidence of years spent in pursuit of the perfect shave. That blade’s rasp on my whiskers is now my morning music, a sound that signals how unavoidably I’ve morphed into the man who bought me my first razor. But I won’t have to wait long for that unexpected moment—the one when distraction, or haste brings about my weekly shaving accident—to make my own mark.


Dan, 1986