When I was three, I went to Alcatraz. I was just visiting. They had our tour group walk into a cell, and they shut the door. I think they locked it. I think it was the darkest place I’ve ever been. I spent the next five years worrying about going to jail, although even in the United States of Lock-‘em-up, there aren’t a lot of three-year-olds in jail.
Yesterday I tried to use my debit card at the Dollar Store, a place that is the perfect place to have your debit card declined. Not that I’m in the habit of having my debit card declined. There are almost always some folks at the Dollar Store shopping in pajama bottoms and shoes that aren’t shoes. There are people who set one thing down and trade it out for something they need more. There are sometimes people who look like they could use a good scrubbing. They don’t look like people who would turn up their noses at a little financial difficulty. Nah. So when my card was declined, I was glad I was there. No one was impressed.
Later that day, just as an experiment, I tried to charge a glass of wine, and nope! Denied again. I thought maybe it had expired, because the expiration date is this month. I sent my credit card back, then, and the poor waitress had to return and quietly tell me that it had been declined, too. I felt like I was in this scene of my movie: “Show protagonist’s low point.” A protagonist’s low point often is shown in such a manner.
The friends I was with were all nice and jokey about me being declined (oh, not like ancient Greek nouns decline, not being turned down for a fancy invitation, but declined, “your status as a solvent upstanding citizen no longer exists”). I remembered that I am surrounded by nice people who don’t think a lack of money is shameful. I wasn’t at a low point at all. Someone paid for my drink, and I felt embarrassed at a level I’d estimate at 4 of 10. Ten years ago, I would have gone home, crawled under my bed, and cried. Nine out of ten.
I’m a C student in Money. I think this is pretty good, since many artistic types are habitual F kids. I keep my money on a leash long enough that it occasionally digs a hole without me noticing, and then I fall into it. At least I keep a hold of the leash, and I have a shovel. What I mean is, I have a savings account, and there is money in it it. That’s what keeps me passing.
One Christmas, probably the winter after the Alcatraz visit, I was at a department store, and I brushed against an ornament on a tree. It didn’t break or anything It just fell on the carpet. My mom was busy shopping. No one saw what happened. I didn’t tell anyone. I was never one to confess. It was the first time I felt ashamed. For a long time afterward, I worried that a policeman would come up to me and accuse me. I was afraid I would be taken to Alcatraz and locked in the cell.
Sometimes I think fear is the main enemy. Sometimes I think it’s shame. As time goes on, if you can shorten your list of things you’re ashamed of, you can become more and more relaxed. More accommodating of other people’s nonsense, because your own doesn’t take up so much room in your brain.
I was ashamed of being frightened at Alcatraz. Even at three, I knew we weren’t really being locked in. I thought I shouldn’t be afraid of anything. I thought fear was for weaker sorts. I think no one should cut their money so close that their cards are declined– especially at bars! And even if the next day is payday.
Pretend things are scary. Pretend things are much scarier than real things. A human without fears is maybe not even a human. What could I work with if not my fear? I’d be all alone, without much to write about. If I were never ashamed, how would I ever know my friends loved me? When would they ever get to be kind to me?
Note: I also went to Disneyland and the Hearst Castle and Muir Woods on that California trip, lest you imagine my childhood traumatic. I was a happy kid, and the whole world found me beautiful and amazing. Alcatraz was one of the few scary bits. Photo is actual photo from my fugitive period, around age five.