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Holding Doors for Amazons
Notes From A World Beyond Gender
© 2013 James LaFond
NOV/6/13
Victoria Waks and I have had nearly a hundred conversations and e-mail communications concerning the crafting of fiction. The focus has often come down to gender in fiction. Some months ago Victoria came up with the idea and the title for the ‘His Take, Her Take’ series. The actual presentation of our joint effort will be here at jameslafond.com for the simple reason that this site is set up for daily uploads, permitting us writers to be impulsive. I can think of few subjects more important to the human condition than the consideration of how we separate ourselves along various lines. More fundamental than race, religion and ideology is our separation along the very gender line that also serves as our cultural glue.
Victoria has informed me that we are perhaps a week away from our joint effort being introduced to her readership, which certainly includes many educated women. I am taking this opportunity to layout my perspective so that my opinions may be more easily put into context by the female reader new to this site. This ‘introduction’ will remain focused on the question of gender roles in your society and mine, which are most probably worlds apart.
Education of an Obsolete Man
I was born in 1963 and raised by Betty and Ted, with the aid of their parents, with Betty’s parents having more influence as they lived longer. I was among the last boys in America taught to hold doors open for women. I was taught that it was my role to respect and protect the women in my life. My grandmothers were the most vociferous voices espousing these entwined values.
I came of age during a transitional time when gender roles have shifted immensely. I went from a boy living in a neighborhood which the men left everyday for what might as well have been an alien worker planet while the women stayed at home with us children, to a man living amongst industrious ‘females’ attended and preyed upon by non-productive ‘males’. Mind you, that same working class community once fueled by the labor of men and managed by the effort of women is now a desiccated urban wasteland in which most ‘males’ over the age of 18 have been or are a ward of the Criminal Justice System, and where virtually every lease and mortgage is held by a ‘female head of household’.
For four years I managed a 110 person business in this community and found the ‘males’ universally incapable of functioning in the workplace, and the ‘females’ highly productive. As in the military, where there are not men and women warriors, but male and female soldiers, a criminalized society such as Baltimore is rarely the home of the term ‘man’ or ‘woman’. The males, however, still retain their urge to feel potent, often attacking women and weaker males, making this one of the most violent cities, in the most violent nation, on Planet Earth.
As a retail food store manager the lessons taught to me by the matriarchs of my family served me well. While my male employees were being arrested on the way to work for the crime of being black, or quitting unannounced as soon as child support wage garnishments caught up with them, my female employees were highly productive. They only made one demand of me and my co-manager: that we protect them. And we did. I personally ejected over 100 male customers in four years for speaking rudely to or threatening female employees. I did not run that store, the women did. I just provided security. I rescued little old lady customers from drug-crazed panhandlers who pinned them inside of their cars screaming for money. I talked angry boyfriends into leaving the store and reminded my male staff to keep their hands to their selves.
Then my security manager started harassing the women. When the ownership—fearing a law suit if we broke ranks with our security man—directed me to stand aside as they fired the ‘trouble making accusers’, I resigned, because I was no longer able to function in the gender role my family had raised me to fulfill. I knew I could not walk through that door without feeling like a shadow of a human.
I have retired to be a fulltime writer and a boxing and stick-fighting coach. My nonfiction is devoted to violent urban crime and combat sports. One would think gender issues would be largely absent from these odd pursuits. They are not. Likewise my fiction focuses heavily on gender roles.
I recently had a conversation with my mother, now in her 70s, concerning Victoria’s idea for examining gender in fiction. Our talking point was the bloody HBO series Game of Thrones. My mother was horrified by the violence and the treatment of women and commented, “Young women need to see this, so that they never forget how women had it for most of history, and how lucky we are to be alive now. Remember how mouthy my mother was? How she argued with Grandpa and made sure everyone knew how she felt? That was because her and her mother lived before women had any rights. They remembered and never let the men forget.”
Gender in the Denatured World
As a sci-fi writer one of my duties is to try—and most likely fail—to predict future realities. I look at the most powerful nation on earth and see a heavily militarized foreign policy. The will of this nation is imposed in over 31 lesser nations via 900-plus military bases by ‘male’ and ‘female’ soldiers, sailors and aviators. Military activity in a technologically advanced society has and will marginalize gender roles. You don’t need twenty inch arms to press a button or flip a switch.
Likewise, the most powerful nation on earth has more incarcerated humans than the next five largest nations combined. Of the 192 nations on earth the U.S. has 20% of the total world population of prisoners! Is not the U.S., as the most advanced nation on earth, the future?
Are we a dead-end or are we the future? As an infamous Baltimore crime icon once said, “Riddle me that?”
As a writer I have the luxury of addressing it from either hypothesis in my future settings. But, in case you are wondering with your liberally educated mind from the comfort of your suburban enclave [as my Mother and Sister and Aunt thankfully are] what that kind of society would be like, you need only look at a majority black American city of mid-size: Baltimore; Detroit; Oakland.
What is life like from a gender perspective in a criminalized society where most boys and men have or will be incarcerated and women take up a prominent role in staffing the burgeoning corrections facilities, which are currently highly profitable, and operated by thriving private law enforcement corporations?
Before I get to my personal examples of holding doors for women in such a world, let me note the two words that will rarely be heard in such an environment, and when they are heard reverberate like declarations of one-person war, shouted proudly by individuals trying to proclaim their humanity in the face of a faceless power: ‘man’ and ‘woman’.
Very often the last statement of defiance by a person who is being terminated from employment, made to leave a private business, or in the process of being arrested, is a heartfelt demand that they be acknowledged as a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’, in Baltimore often ‘a grown-ass man’. This seems to me to be a rejection of the criminalized matrix that Baltimoreans find themselves in, a city where, in one fateful year, one out of every six humans was arrested!
Victoria pointed out to me that this criminalized slice of the world I live in and write about is a small slice, and that few of our readers will come from its inky depths. I would just like to remind our readers, that this dark slice of the world is growing exponentially, with private corrections corporations counted among the Fortune 500, and the majority of our middle-class suburban children listening to the music and imitating the dress of the hip-hop entertainers that continue to emerge from its bowels. Last year I spent some time with my brother in his Columbus Ohio mansion. What did those rich college-bound teenagers watch on TV when it was only them and permissive ‘Uncle Jimmy’ at home?
They watched and worshipped as gangster rappers chanted misogynistic lyrics, and even sat for a documentary of one urban criminal’s mansion, including an inventory of his pantry.
My family thinks I’m nuts for living in a ghetto. But I’m a writer wondering about the future. Like a biologist pitching his tent by the hot spring that is the source of a rapidly expanding organism, I have moved to one of many cultural devolution Ground Zeros, a wellspring which I suspect will form the basis not only for a future without gender, but, as Alice B. Sheldon postulated in her story ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’, a world without men.
Holding Doors for Amazons
Last week I went out to dinner with the mother of one of my fighters. He has moved out of town and has asked me to keep in contact with his mother. Martha is a strong aggressive woman, very much like my Grandma Kern. She has even boasted about being ‘the toughest man in her family’. While leaving the diner after dark I attempted to hold the door open for her and she laughed. I backed off. As an obsolete man you never know when this courtesy will be appreciated. I then, as I always do when the passenger in any vehicle, stood by the passenger side and waited for her to get in and start it up. This is a simple security issue. Most men and women fall the victim of violent crimes such as carjacking as they take their seat. Martha became angry with me. I retorted, “I know you’re a badass, but even Mike Tyson is helpless on his ass.”
I am a pedestrian and always wait for other patrons to board the bus before I do. This is not a simple courtesy. I have survived on foot and alone at night in areas cops shun. I do this largely through such practical acts as never stepping in front of another person, and always remaining alert to the presence of others without acknowledging them [anti-social I know, but necessary]. I am also haunted by the ghost of Grandma Kern, who would have cussed me out for boarding ahead of women, children and the elderly.
The bus drivers prefer that people board in order of ‘brevity of payment’. They have a schedule to keep and want people swiping passes ahead of people feeding cash into the meter. Over the past three decades I have been treated to the spectacle of athletic young men continuously, always and everlastingly, forcing the elderly, the maimed, the injured, the handicapped, the pregnant, and the baby-hauling young mother, to stand out in the cold, the heat, the rain, and the snow, waiting with their easily swiped bus passes, while these young [actual and wannabe] gangbangers attempt to jam balled up money fished from baggy pants pockets into the bus meter.
No bus driver dare question the Young Drug Lords of Baltimore or their myriad violent imitators. This is where a world without gender roles ends up once it has devolved. Below are two examples.
Last year we had a fifty degree temperature drop over night. I don’t have a TV or smart phone so do not keep current on the weather. The next morning I was headed out to the country to visit a civilized friend. Fortunately, I always carry a spare jacket or flannel shirt in case I am involved in a knife fight, which only occurs every five years of my life. This excessive precaution came in handy on that unseasonably cold morning. I was just plain cold, as opposed to freezing at the stop. On my second stop I found myself standing next to a very pretty little black woman of perhaps twenty years. She was dressed for a receptionist job in a flimsy summer dress. She had nothing to even cover her shoulders. Her skin turned ashen white with goose bumps and her pearly teeth were audibly clattering from five feet away as we stood in the long morning shadow of Towson Town Center on a very windy stretch of primary road at rush hour.
My father would have put his coat over her shoulders as would my grandfather, even my grandmother. I had a dilemma. My apparent invulnerability to rampant urban crime, which has resulted in people I was standing next to being singled out and beaten, stabbed and even shot by rampaging maniacs while I was avoided like a leper, has a lot to do with my appearance. As my youngest son recently told me when he picked me up for dinner in his high-end sports car and shook his head, “Dad, you look like some scary homeless guy. I guess its pizza or a diner. I can’t very well take you to a real restaurant looking like that.”
I look like recycled white trash. I dress down with a complete lack of fashion sense. A gang of crack-dealers a third my age once adopted me as a mascot, as I used the bus stop where they sold their drugs and jacked cars from. They affectionately called me ‘Cave Boy’.
Back to my Dainty Damsel in Underdressed Distress
Any word, any advance on this lady on my part, would be regarded as a threat, possibly by her and the large overdressed gangbanger next to us. The lady would have to freeze. Grandma Kern would have stabbed me in the throat with her hairbrush for this discourteous atrocity.
I stayed with my urban survival protocol for the full 15 minutes of her misery.
The bus finally came and the giant gangbanger stepped up in front of her. She continued to freeze, her teeth clicking together and her knees knocking as he spent a full two minutes jamming bunched up money in the meter!
If my father had been the driver he would have ordered the cretin back down to the sidewalk. If my grandfather had been in my shoes he would have grabbed the lout by the hood and dragged him down to the sidewalk and let the lady get in out of the cold. I continued reading.
Eventually, as I was taking my seat behind the still shivering woman, he came over to her and began ‘chatting her up’, asking for her phone number, even suggesting sex on the first date. She shivered still, and just smiled at him, looking distantly out the window, obviously wanting to be somewhere else.
I have fallen a long way from my Grandfather’s code. But, as you can see by the way this man treated her, and the callous disregarded of the middle-aged male bus driver for her plight, this lady, as are all of her peers, was accustomed to males—for such people as this yellow-attired hoodlum could have never been regarded as having the status of a ‘man’ in any traditional human culture, and certainly not in the eyes of my mother’s father—only approaching them for sex of the most meaningless kind.
Most stay-behind white men in Baltimore are either drug addicts or alcoholics and/or convicted sex criminals who have been released to live in halfway houses. Five such houses, holding over twenty adult white male sex criminals between them, are within a five minute walk of this keyboard. I remain prepared to see a woman freeze rather than take a chance that I might be assumed to be one of those perverts. As I am routinely harassed by police officers for the crime of ‘walking while white in a black drug market’ I will take no chance of arousing suspicion and inviting such unwanted attention.
Yesterday I had offloaded as a young white woman ran for the same bus. She was of the urban homesteader class, the twenty-something hipster generation of white professionals who cringe in horror when a man of my low class says good morning or good evening. I always avoid looking at these women to avoid making them feel uncomfortable. I once offered transportation advice to such a lady, and she immediately assumed I was trying to make an advance and placed one hand up in a holding gesture and reached for her mace with the other. Her action was one I would recommend and commend. We live in a predation matrix. I was wrong for trying to initiate simple human interaction while we were both at what amounts to a watering hole stalked by predators.
I only protect people who are ‘with me’ and they are rare. I have walked by men being stomped in the gutter without a sideway glance, have witnessed abductions without calling the police, have watched people dragged into back alleys without breaking my stride or speeding up. I survive the environment I have come to study by being one of its most callous occupants. I have walked by lost children standing in a gutter and stepped over begging and broken men numerous times.
Back to Miss Hipster Homesteader
The woman who was running for the bus fell face first, her ankle caught in a grate partially covering a sunken sidewalk block. If it had been the Zombie Apocalypse she would have been ‘zeek food’. The black women walking by could have cared less, and just nodded down at her while she groaned and tried to move. I did not halt, not even sparing a glance. A look behind as I stepped off the curb would have appeared weak, would have given the impression to the other street people in Harm City that this aging white trash guy might harbor some compassion, might have a chink in his armor, might reach into his pocket for a quarter so he could be more easily mugged.
I walked on, not a ‘man’ by my grandparents’ definition, rather some urban survivor, stuck somewhere between the 1963 ideal of manhood and the 2013 ‘male’ breeding drone thriving in his artificial tribal construct—the envy and low-water mark of our popular culture.
A Human Role
This morning I called up a lady I used to work with for her input on this erosion of gender roles as illuminated by the fairly benign question of holding doors and giving up our place of comfort for our opposites.
This is her take, “I refuse to hold doors for women anymore, and I don’t expect a man to hold a door for me. If he does I give a thank you. It is a courtesy, a human courtesy, which most of us have lost. It is no longer a gender issue. I don’t hold doors for women because they are selfish and never acknowledge the courtesy. I do not expect a thanks, just an acknowledgement that I exist—a good morning maybe. I shut the door right in her face. Does that make me a bad person? I’m sorry but the world wears you down.”
The way I see it our gender is part and parcel of our humanity. If the traditional cultural roles assigned to that gender have truly become obsolete, I suggest we assign a more appropriate role—if only to ourselves—lest we lose another piece of what it is to be human.
I suppose that I cling to these old outmoded roles of my grandfathers’ because, deep down, I want to be more than that highly survivable creep that callously stepped off the curb while that young woman pulled herself out of the sunken grate in the sidewalk. I have a grandson now, and I’d like to be able to teach him something different than what his grandmother will be teaching his sister, something that might help them complement each other, something that might make the two of them together better, better than us.
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Lana     Nov 8, 2013

This makes me really sad.
James     Nov 8, 2013

It makes me sad too. This is one of the few pieces I have written without a feeling of hope. I suppose I'm not quite the recluse I attempt to be, and have been putting off writing this since last winter.
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