The “Popularity Game”
Most of the young people I met during my adolescence seemed secure in their values. The 1940s were not like today, when it is common for young people to question society’s values, to seek Meaning, to ponder its, and their, relationship to the universe and to God. When I was in high school, as nearly as I could tell I walked alone in such questing. I knew no guidelines to follow. I wasn’t even sure what it was I was seeking. All I knew definitely was that I wanted something, and that that something didn’t seem to be what anyone else wanted.
Others had already planned out their lives more or less confidently. They would get good jobs, make money, get ahead in the world, marry, settle down in Scarsdale or some other wealthy community, raise children, give cocktail parties, and enjoy the fruits of a normal, worldly life. But I already knew I didn’t want money. I didn’t want to “get ahead” materially. I wasn’t interested in marrying and raising a family. I knew well enough a few of the things I didn’t want, but had no distinct notion of what it was I did want. And in this uncertainty I sometimes doubted whether my disinclination for the things others prized wasn’t proof of some inadequacy in myself.
Had others, I wondered, secure as they seemed in their norms, achieved some insight to which I myself was blind? Certainly my lifelong inability to adopt a conventional outlook had been for years a source of intense unhappiness for me.
Now that I had left Kent and was enrolled as a senior in Scarsdale High School, I determined to overcome what was surely a defect in my own character. This new school year, I decided, I would try a great experiment. I would pretend to myself that I liked what everyone else liked, that their values were my values, their norms, mine. I would see whether, by deliberately adopting their outlook, I could not begin at last to feel at home with it. If I succeeded, how easy my life would become! Resolutely I set my sights. This last year of high school would mark my giant step forward into “normalcy.”
As a first step toward “swinging with the crowd,” I seized energetically on swing music. Every week I listened eagerly to the radio with my brothers to learn which popular songs had made it onto the Hit Parade. I put on crowd-consciousness like a suit, and soon found that it fit snugly enough. In shouting competitions I joined in and shouted. In laughing I bubbled with the best. I dated. I danced. I became the vocalist for a dance band. And as I made all this noise I found, incredibly, that I both liked it and was liked for it.
I began the school year with a major advantage: Both of my brothers were popular. Bob, who was in the tenth grade, was loved by everyone, including upperclassmen. His was not the typical attitude of the Big Man on Campus — more interested in being loved, that is to say, than in loving, and ever careful to associate with only the “right” people. Bob genuinely liked everybody. It made no difference to him whether they were looked up to or down upon by others. He was their friend, and they knew it. Unable to tone his voice lower than a gentle boom, he dominated every gathering, but no one seemed to mind. Somehow in his company they felt more generous, more sure of their own goodness.
His enthusiasm for life was boundless. One day, coming home dizzy from playing in a football game, he was found to have a fever of 105°. Ill as he was, he had insisted on finishing the game.
They called him “Bucky,” after Bucky Walters, the famous baseball player. Though the nickname remained with him, I myself never used it, for I knew that he also had a deeper side, one that he didn’t often reveal to others — a refined sensitivity to music, a deep gentleness, a certain nobility of character, all of which seemed to me rather betrayed by the hail-fellow-well-met implications in that nickname.
From the start it was obvious to everyone that Bob and I were very different specimens. A few of my classmates, besides, had heard from Phil Boote, my ex-roommate at Kent. Phil also lived in Scarsdale, and had shown enough sense of community responsibility to warn them what a social disaster I was. For Bob’s sake, however, and because I was so obviously determined to mend my lamentable ways, they gave me the benefit of the doubt, and accepted me kindly enough into their midst.
Scarsdale High was much larger than Kent, a fact which permitted adolescents with a wide variety of interests to mix happily together without the pressure to conform that there had been at Kent. Being Bob’s brother automatically threw me into the “in” crowd, a position I boldly accepted as the kind of challenge I needed to bring off my “great experiment” with a maximum of success.
I tried out for the football team. At 136 pounds, I was hardly first-string material. Still, I played hard during practice sessions, and during the games ardently supported our team from the bench. Unfortunately for any dreams of glory I might have harbored, I was a halfback and so also was Charlie Rensenhouse, the team captain. Openings in that position were rare. The only time I actually made it onto the playing field during a game was once when Rensenhouse got hurt.
“Walters!” Coach Buchanan shouted.
My big opportunity? “Yes, Sir!” I cried, leaping eagerly to my feet.
“Walters, get out there and help Rensenhouse off the field.”
In track I did better. There hadn’t been a track team at Kent, so I had never learned the proper starting techniques, but I was a fast runner, and managed to acquit myself creditably. I actually ran the 100-yard dash in only 10.2 seconds at my first meet. Unfortunately, I pulled a ligament early in the season and was out of the running for the rest of the school year.
Of my classes, my favorite was English. Lucyle Hook, our English teacher, took a keen interest in her subject, loved her students, and obviously wanted with all her heart to share with us what she knew. She was as much our friend as our teacher. With her encouragement I wrote short stories and poems, some of which appeared in the school magazine. While none of them was particularly consequential, they were good enough at least to gain me a reputation as a budding talent, and fanned my resolution to write for a living.
One of the students in my French class was a girl named Ruth, later voted the most beautiful girl in our senior class. I dated her, and became as infatuated with her as any boy is likely to be with his first girlfriend. But there were potholes on the road to romance.
Dad, for fear of spoiling us boys, gave us a weekly allowance of only fifty cents. I had to save for two weeks merely to take Ruth to the movies. Even then, we usually had to walk the several miles to White Plains and back. This wasn’t the ideal setup for making a good impression on a girl.
Worse still, when it came to something so deeply personal as romance, I couldn’t put on the extroverted bluff that was carrying me along successfully enough in other departments of my life. Somehow I’d conceived the notion that I was physically unattractive, and that I had nothing really worthwhile to offer anyone. Because I doubted my own worth, moreover, I was afraid to trust myself to another person’s feelings about me. When another boy, a large, perennially joking and popular football star, began to date Ruth, I hadn’t the self-confidence to compete with him. For that matter, I wouldn’t have competed with him even if I’d been bursting with confidence, for I could never see love in the light of self-imposition and conquest.
Singing I found a joy. Mr. Hubbard, our chorus director, tried to persuade me to take it up as a career. “There’s money in your voice,” he kept insisting, not aware that money was probably the poorest lure he could have offered me.
When I was sixteen, my father offered to buy me a tuxedo. I knew intuitively even then that I had a very different destiny.
“Don’t bother, Dad,” I said. “I’d never wear it. In fact, I’ll never earn enough money to pay income tax.” Fanciful as this prediction must have seemed, it was to prove true.
That year I sang in Handel’s Messiah, and played Sgt. Meryll in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeomen of the Guard. At our Church of St. James the Less, my brothers and I also sang the roles of the three wise men in the Christmas pageant, an event which, I was surprised to learn many years later, was still remembered by some old-timers in Scarsdale.
Other activities at the church, I must admit, held less appeal for me. Our minister, Father Price, kept threatening us in his sermons that if we didn’t toe the straight and narrow we’d soon end up “right in the lap of the Nazis.”
Instead, I began bending rather too far in another direction. Doug Burch, a friend of Bob’s and mine, introduced me to Nick’s, a nightclub in Greenwich Village famous as a hangout for Dixieland jazz enthusiasts. Eddie Condon, Peewee Russell, and other jazz “greats” played here with such consummate skill that I actually found myself growing to like jazz, though later I decided it lacked heart and was too intellectual. Fascinated with this new “scene,” I absorbed all its trivia: how the wife of one of the taller players used to beat him up; how the band ate in a nightclub across the street because Nick wouldn’t feed them properly; how a little old lady would show up on Saturday evenings, take a front table, and clap her hands enthusiastically to the music, shouting, “Yeah! Yeah!” like any teenager. It is amazing that people can make as much as they do out of this kind of “news,” merely because celebrities are involved. But they do. And we did.
It was at Nick’s that I took my first alcoholic drink. Of all the foolish pastimes to which mankind is given, drinking must surely rank near the top of the list. Few people, I imagine, take up either drinking or smoking for pleasure alone. It seems more a question of not wanting to appear gauche. At any rate, those were my motives. Alcohol I found at least not positively sickening, but smoking was like learning to enjoy rotten food.
I remember clearly the first time I learned to inhale. A girl at a party in Scarsdale showed me the knack. One drag made me so dizzy I almost slipped to the floor. Then, with the kind of twisted idealism that marked most of that year for me, I told myself sternly, “I’m going to master this if it kills me!” Little did I realize that true mastery would have meant not succumbing to such silliness in the first place. That evening I succeeded in “mastering” smoking, but I’m afraid it wasn’t long before smoking mastered me.
The worst thing about drinking, from a spiritual standpoint, is not the temporary stupor it may induce, nor the hangover that can follow an indiscreet “night on the town,” nor the illusory “high” one gets even if he drinks only lightly, but rather the long-range effect alcohol has on his personality. In some subtle way it seems to make one more earthy; one’s perceptions, less refined. One inclines, even if only slightly, to scoff at things he formerly considered sacred. The ego becomes less sensitively responsive to its environment, and more self-assertive, even aggressive. It is as if one felt a need to grip harder in an effort to compensate for the diminution of one’s natural powers. These effects may, as I said, be observed not only during hours of inebriation, but as actual, long-term personality changes.
The explanation may be that things, inert though they seem, actually act as media for various states of consciousness. We may scoff, as I used to do, at “holy Joes” in church who denounce “likker” as a tool of Satan, but laughter has been known to hoot down many a truth. The very inclination, so common in societies where drinking is popular, to tell jokes about drunkenness suggests a subconscious desire to silence the disapproving whisper of conscience. For everyone must know, deep inside, that drunkenness is an insult to man’s true nature.
Another “thing” which greatly influences consciousness is music. Looking back, I am astonished to see how quickly, by my willing exposure to swing music, I came to assume attitudes that I had formerly thought quite foreign to my nature. As months passed, it became increasingly second nature to me to see life in terms of sports, romance, and good times, to laugh with the loudest, roam about with the most restless, and give and take in the youthful exuberance of an ego competing more or less insensitively with other egos.
Yet somewhere deep within me there was a watchful friend who remained unimpressed, who questioned my motives, observed my follies with detachment, and demanded of me with a sad smile of reproach, “Is this what you really want?” I was honest enough with myself to admit that it wasn’t.
Gradually the longing grew within me to stop wasting time. I could see that there was too much in life to learn, too much towards which to grow. For my English source theme at the end of the school year I chose as my subject, “The Different Concepts of the Universe Held by Ancient Civilizations, and the Quality in Each Civilization that Influenced the Development of Its Own Concept.” Questions that played no part in my Great Experiment asserted themselves persistently: What is life? Is there meaning in the universe? What is the purpose of life? Such issues could not be laughed away with another evening at Nick’s.
One evening a classmate and I visited a local diner, an “in” place with the high school crowd. While we were waiting for seats, my friend began to make an impromptu accompaniment to the music that was playing on the jukebox. Laughingly I encouraged him. All the while, however, my silent inner “friend” demanded of me indignantly, “What is this cacophony, this jerking about, this nodding of the head like an animated puppet, this contortion of the facial muscles? Is not this, too, evidence of a kind of drunkenness?”
My friend wrote in my year book afterwards how much he had enjoyed our “jam session” together. I myself, however, felt merely embarrassed by the memory, as though we had been the playthings of a rhythm-induced hysteria.
At Scarsdale High I learned that I could, if I wanted to, play the Great American Popularity Game and come out, in a sense, a winner. But my success had not made me any happier. If I felt that I now understood something of what other young people wanted from life, I couldn’t say that their vision held any gripping attraction for me.
I was back almost at the beginning. The one thing I had learned this year was how to wrap a veil around myself and hide my true feelings from others. Well, perhaps after all this was a useful lesson. There can be little merit in exposing one’s highest aspirations to people who don’t appreciate them. But it wasn’t much of a step towards fulfilling my aspirations. My next step, I realized, must be directed more intelligently toward that fulfillment.