>Travel Diary: May 16, 2003

>May 16, 2003 / Youngstown, OH



Though I should be trying to finish (and shorten) my presentation for the working-class studies conference tomorrow so that the morning isn’t frantic, just about my first act on arriving in town is to visit Handel’s Ice Cream on Belmont Avenue, a short walk from my motel, not that anyone walks. Tucked under the I-80 overpass (EAST NEW YORK CITY 405 MILES), Handel’s is one of the few unmitigated pleasures Y’Town seems to have to offer. Hand-pressed or hand-folded or hand-packed or whatever it is they do to ice cream by hand. There are no seats; you eat in your car or standing around outside in the parking lot. It’s always jammed. They don’t especially care about service; they don’t have to. It’s that or oily Plaza Doughnuts a mile down the road if you want your sugar fix.

I have the hot fudge sundae with crumbled Reese’s. The very sweet, very dim, very young girl who takes my order brings me two hot fudge sundaes, neither of which has Reese’s. She apologizes, but doesn’t offer to re-do my order. I think about bargaining with her for the second sundae, which I presume she’ll have to throw out (unless one of her co-workers eats it – why are people who work in ice-cream parlors always SKINNY??), but then I think: There’s going off your diet and then there’s going off your diet. No need to get all Homer Simpson on her ass. Besides, now that I’m officially “in country,” Wendell’s Road Rules are in effect: You get to stop anytime you see a Dairy Queen and, thank God, you see them a lot.

At Handel’s, I’m reminded of a passage I just read in the Prologue to Kirk Read’s memoir, How I Learned to Snap, which I’m planning to use in my presentation tomorrow. He writes about going into a Wal*Mart “café” in Lake County, CA to have a burger and noticing a boy he immediately identifies as queer:

Amidst those lunching at tiny Formica tables, the boy sat with his mother. He sported a ponytail tied off with a purple scrunchie. His well-conditioned hair hung over the left shoulder of his Calvin Klein tee shirt…. His fingers were covered with silver rings and he ate quickly…. [He and his mother] spoke without looking at each other. I sat at the table behind his mother, catching pieces of their quiet conversation. Names like Pa and Aunt Junebug floated over to me. The boy saw my tee shirt—two baby girls kissing. He looked up from his food to throw

glances at me…. He was a dainty eater and wiped the sides of his mouth with a small stack of napkins after each bite.

He looked at me again, this time longer…. When I returned his stare, our eyes locked. I was careful, aware that this was not my turf…. I was home again, back in the land of nervous gestures and crude guesswork as to the substance of a stranger’s gaze….

His eyes were full of a need for adoption. I wasn’t cruising him. I was gently, carefully letting him know that his tribe was out there, beyond the cinderblocks and hubcaps that filled his front yard. It took me ten years to make it to the other side of this dynamic. How many strangers had I set my eyes upon, begging for reassurance?

This passage, of course, is mostly about Read and not much about the boy, who is a blank screen for Read’s projections and, indeed, introjections. But there’s such interesting stuff here. Such as: Who does he think this boy’s (and his own) tribe is, exactly?

And what a lesson in the semiotics of queer identification: On the one hand, well-conditioned hair, purple scrunchie, silver rings, Calvin Klein T-shirt, dainty eater. On the other, Wal*Mart lunches, Aunt Junebug, and hubcaps in the yard. Is that what we’re talking about? Is that the choice?

But of course, who hasn’t had a version of this experience? I had one at Handel’s when a pasty, nelly boy of about 15 came to the window while I was waiting for my order to come out wrong. He was with a girl who might have been his sister, but who was more likely his best gal-pal from school; they talked to each other archly, with a lot of adolescent scorn and irony. Unlike in Read’s story, this boy refused to catch my eye. After they got their order, they argued over who would carry Gram’s cone to her (she had driven and was waiting in the car). He flounced out to hand the ice cream through the window; the girl was trying to look a lot more maternal than she could actually pull off. They were at that age where they still liked coming to Handel’s for ice cream, but how fucking uncool is it when you have to get your GRANDMOTHER to drive you? When they left, he got into the backseat and she sat shotgun next to Gram; I couldn’t decode that.

Does that boy dream of leaving Youngstown and finding his “tribe” elsewhere? Does he dream of anything at all?

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Posted on 16 May 2003, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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