Sunday, November 22, 2020

Everybody Knows Something is Wrong


This article appeared in the October 15, 1967 issue of the Miami Herald, between Yellow (and The Last One Left) and Gray, and was featured in the newspaper’s Sunday supplement Tropic. Titled “Everybody Knows Something is Wrong,” it reads like a McGee aside, and in fact features McGee prominently. It’s interesting to note that this was written only three months prior to that annus horribilis, 1968.

John D. MacDonald of Sarasota is one of America's master mystery writers. His 55th book, Three for McGee, will be published Nov. 17 by Doubleday - a hardcover edition containing the first three books in the Travis McGee mystery series, The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink and A Purple Place for Dying. Novels 56 through 61 are in varying stages of completion.

Everybody Knows Something is Wrong

By John D. MacDonald

There is a fellow named Travis McGee who lives aboard his houseboat, The Busted Flush, in Fort Lauderdale, and manages to sidestep the processors and go his own way at his own pace. I used to have the illusion that he was a fictional character, and that I had invented him and thus, in the nine novels I have thus far written featuring him, I could make him do whatever I happened to think of.

My illusion dropped dead a month ago when I met with a pack of frighteningly bright high school kids from Tallahassee who came to Sarasota by bus to go to the Asolo Theater and the Ringling Museums. At their teacher's request I met with this experimental group in the gardens of the Ringling Museum for questions and answers about writing, about McGee and so on.

They got onto the reality and unreality of fictional characters, and one staunch girlchild said firmly, “I know Travis is real." And, bemused, I asked her what made her so sure. She said, “Because, if you didn't believe he was, Mr. MacDonald, you couldn't make me believe it either.”

And in my moment of reluctant revelation I realized how many times my books about Travis McGee have come to a sickening halt when I attempted to make him take certain actions inconsistent with his private and personal beliefs. He plants his feet. “No sir, boy. Not me."

McGee resents being processed, programmed, fed through the machinery by experts trained in handling people rather than persons.

He knows that the dentist, the post office, the county, the IRS, the airline hostess, the librarian, the highway engineer, the supermarket, the city government, the census bureau, the banker, the advertising agent, the automobile agency, the hospital and the mortician are all intent upon using him as a statistic, as one atom in a manageable mass, and then studying him, weighing him, measuring him, predicting his actions on some huge probability table.

They use manuals and trade journals and computers and statistical methods and psychological testing devices to predict mass reaction, and handle mass demand on a totally impersonal and totally efficient basis.

It irritates him to have society take away his face and dump him into the great hopper labeled Standard Operating Procedure.

But don't try to tell him that in a densely populated urban culture it has to be that way, that people must be turned into a commodity, or we would have chaos. Don't try to tell him that if the processors tried to measure the uniqueness of each human personality, the wonderful specialness, the delicious inconsistency of every one of us, all the memory banks would start smoking, the sorters would spew out a snow-storm of punch cards, and all the complex technology of our culture would grind to a sickening halt.

McGee knows that. But he reserves the right to resent being sorted and graded on the basis of "sameness" rather than on the basis of uniqueness. It makes him feel degraded, and he reserves the right to do his little bit here and there to startle the processors out of their compulsion to flatten and deaden all human contact, thereby creating a cumulative indifference and unawareness, as well as a truly frightful boredom.

The other day he had to go over to the Courthouse to get his two-year Florida driving license renewed. The girl behind the window was a pallid, colorless, competent mouse who took the old license without glance or greeting, put it beside her typewriter and rolled the new license blank into the machine. As she typed flawlessly and speedily, McGee studied her, thinking that about 24 years ago a nurse had announced her arrival to a nervous daddy.

There had been for her the enormous and frightening adventure of kindergarten, first grade, high school, first kiss. Everything she had on was the result of her going into a store and making a selection, evaluating appearance and price. And every morning she looked at her quiet little face in her mirror and brushed those teeth, and God only knows what myths and despairs, fantasies and hopes, depression and joy moved through that subdued and secret mind.

So as she finished the typing, pulled the duplicates and put his copy on the ledge for his signature he said, “That blouse is a very good color for you.”

The eyes that looked at him were like recording lenses in some kind of equipment. The blink was an electronic click. They saw a thing standing there renewing a bit of paper.

“What, sir?"

"I said the color of your blouse is becoming. It's a good color for you, Miss."

She looked down at herself and then back at him in a kind of blank astonishment, a transition stage from processor to person, and blushed, and the eyes were the eyes of a person then, and the mouth became a girlsmile instead of a slot in the machinery. “Thank you," she said, in a barely audible voice. McGee paid the renewal fee and walked away, aware of having struck another small blow in the war against regimentation. He knows that the sterility of mass methods degrades the dignity of the processor as well as the processed.

I think that the readers who are so hearteningly flocking to the banner of T. McGee are expressing a hunger to escape the irritation and boredom and humiliation of being just another commodity in a commodity-oriented society.

But what IS it within us which is so affronted by the benign paternalism of the computer? Any exercise of simple logic must excuse the necessity for increasing amounts of regulation and order in a land where we grow at the rate of ten thousand new souls a day, a Laredo a week, a Toledo a month, a Chicago a year. Regimentation is good for you!

The resentment is not intellectual. It goes deeper. It is way down in the roar of the blood, flex of muscle, steaming of glands. This is because the urban capture of mankind is a contemporary phenomenon.

Imagine that the whole pre-recorded and recorded history of the race during the past two million years were condensed into one year.

For eleven months and three weeks we roamed a savage world, hunting and running, fighting and breeding. Last week we began to build our own shelters and stay in one place and plant crops.

It is now midnight. At lunch time today some nut began to write down the first words. At eight o'clock this evening Christ was born and died. At quarter to midnight we began to power clumsy machines with fossil fuels. Within the past five minutes have come the miracle drugs, atomic fission and fusion, aerospace, television, transistors, computers. In the last five minutes our world population has increased by one billion.

So are we in revolt against a computerized society, or have we merely hustled ourselves into an ordered, artificial, constricted environment too rapidly for our natural bodies (so admirably designed and so long used for flight, attack, climbing, digging, hiding, slaying) to accept the safety, the inertia, the little cubicles and politenesses and repressions of our urban removal from the savage urgencies of two million years?

When we look at ourselves as individuals, caged by our own cleverness, each of us as out of time and place as a tiger on a raft, it is easy to see how desperately hard it is to contain and subdue the wildness in so brief a time.

We call it "the tension of modern life.” Chain the primitive part, tie it down, and then it breaks out in despairing ways: heart attacks, ulcers, nervous breakdowns, addictions, all the psychosomatic woes, perversions, depravities, ugly mischief.

When we form groups, this same sickness of the caged creature takes other shapes.

I find it very wry and entertaining to translate group efforts into these same terms.

The legions of Birch, who demand a return to the rigid moralities of pioneer America, and a stunting of the federal government, and an end to "the erosions of our freedom," are saying: Let's put an end to this stifling regimentation!

The hippies, with their mind-changing drugs, flashing strobes, body paint, deafening music, and their demands that we make love, not war, and that we dig the flowers, are saying: Let's put an end to this stifling regimentation!

The bands of young Negroes burning the guts of the old ghettos, sniping at cops and firemen, declaring war on Whitey, demanding equal opportunity and freedom and color television for all are saying: Let's put an end to this stifling regimentation!

Communists blame capitalistic oppression for all the urban miseries of man. The Nazis blamed the Jews. The democracies blame the Red conspiracy. The first Hearst blamed the yellow races.

Everybody knows something is wrong, and everybody has an eerie and formless nostalgia for something he has never known. And because we have no choice except this neon jungle, this asphalt wilderness in which we have entrapped ourselves, when we get together in groups we pick out something or someone specific we can safely blame, and we whomp up a group hate and a group action, and then we have a chance to use those ancient muscles and ancient glands and ancient reflexes in some imperfectly rationalized way.

It does no good for Whitey to say to the Detroit rioters, “Look, man, being on this side of the fence doesn't change a thing. There's just as much frustration, just as much despair, just as much formless longing, just as much envy. And when you get sick and miss your payments, they grab back your wheels just as fast.”

No matter what group or class or category any one of us is in, we find that we are a part of the hated symbol of somebody else's unfulfilled longing.

And the more we find ourselves being “processed," being measured and managed, counted and administered, placed in numerical groups and sociological categories, protected from old diseases and newly invented ones, the more serious and desperate and compulsive becomes the urge to bust out.

There are a great many imitation ways of busting out, ways that make the demands on muscle and reflex that the savage planet made on us when we were the wild roamers.

Sky diving and skin diving. A long solitary voyage in a small sailboat. Riding giant waves on little plastic boards. Racing big noisy beasts on wheels, on water, or airborne. Fighting small wars in far places. Knocking over banks and gas stations. Picking fights in bars. Learning judo. Bullfighting. Wire walking. Triple somersaults on the high trapeze. Lion taming. Hunting Cape buffalo with a handgun. Pro football.

But the imitation ways are, each for its own reasons, limited to a percentage few.

So a man, without ever moving out of the same office building, puts up a desperate battle to capture the elusive promotion. In his veins is the same blood, right down to the last fractional analysis, which flowed in his ancestor of a million years ago who put up the desperate battle to capture the plump young gazelle. And when the heart blows up, it is blamed on the tension of working under a sadistic boss.

This is not a paen to exercise, per se. There is a considerable difference in glandular secretion and emotional involvement between a man jogging around the block before breakfast out of a sense of duty, and a man jogging through thickets wondering if the sabertooth tiger has circled and is crouched waiting for him somewhere just ahead. Waiting for a tennis serve has not the same total effect on the organism as waiting for a sharp stone to be hurled at the head.

This, I suspect, is the vicarious fascination which Mr. T. McGee holds for many people. Amidst all the clickey-tick of the memory tubes and print-outs and data recovery, McGee has found the sabertooth tiger and the sharp stone. He has managed a bust-out which makes the regimented man wistful because his response to it is deep and primal.

McGee is a boat man, so he is not constrained to stop at the red lights and never cross the double yellow line. He is "processed” only when he permits it as a necessary part of some far more interesting pursuit. And though he likes things, he is not possessed by things. And his love life - one of those last bits of the original and primitive life experience which has not been blurred and perfumed and anaesthetized into forgetability, as with birth and pain and dying - is not overburdened with any responsibilities except the emotional.

McGee, as a loner, conducts his own kind of wry and bemused little revolt against the processors and the programmers. To fold, bend or spindle the punch-card bill which is in error would be crude, and probably ineffective. McGee finds it more useful, and more fun, to take the corner of a razor blade and cut out a few more oblong holes similar in spacing and identical in size to the ones already in the card. Then he writes his complaint on the card itself, in the comforting knowledge that the sorting machine will spew it out and an actual human being will pick it up out of the reject slot and read the message.

He keeps a box of fairly heavy, envelope-sized steel plates in a storage locker. When junk mail gets too voluminous, he puts these plates in the First Class Permit envelopes along with a polite card which gives his name and address and asks that he be removed from the mailing lists.

He divides people, regardless of race, creed, color, age, background or status into two groups, the very small group he is happy to spend time with and the very large group he isn't. He believes you get that one lap around the long track, and each one has to run his own race in his own way for his own reasons, and it is absurd to spend your time, while running, criticizing the other people on the track for their style of running, or how they take the turns, or how slowly or quickly they get up when they trip and fall.

McGee is a non-conformist in only a limited sense. Sometimes he finds it simpler and easier and quicker to accept the processing than to resist it. He thinks obstructionism for its own sake is a waste of good time, and when you waste time you are wasting life itself if you are not wasting it in a way that pleasures you.

He believes that any human endeavor which requires more than two people to consummate is not worth attempting. The reluctant exceptions are some theater, some ballet, some music. He does not believe in committees, will not sign petitions, and would not stand in line for any award, spectacle or bonus he has ever heard of.

There must be a great yearning among men to live in this same way, yet too many reasons why they cannot. We ride our inevitable assembly lines past those who study and measure and process us, and never find a way to hop off, never find the ways to use ourselves up as we used to, for hundreds of thousands of years, before our clever monkey-brains found the machines to make everything easier and safer.

I do not promulgate the myth of the Noble Savage. In all the centuries of wandering, and for most of the 40,000 years of village cultures, life was cruel, dirty, oppressive and very abrupt. Until a few moments ago in time, the life expectancy of those who survived the infant years was only 30 years. Starvation brutalizes. Untreated disease brutalizes. Superstition degrades.

So here we are in the bright morning of civilization, heading inevitably toward the elimination of all monotonous labor. Guaranteed food and shelter for all. Further prolongation of life. Ever-increasing leisure. By means of little tapes, the machines are now making machines. A bright, flip-top, disposable, asceptic world, safe for all.

We could walk around smiling, were it not for the lurking primate, the unused creature electric with survival reflexes, demanding terror, anger, hate, violence and victims. So, blocked off from the jungles and plains where we bred and roamed, we compensate with gas ovens for people, napalm, the battered child syndrome, conspiracy born of the fear of conspiracy, labor camps and thought police, rape and riots, drugs and despair.

The computer came along before we were really ready for it. It can think, in a very limited and simplistic way. It will get better at building structures of logic. And because we control the computers, we will have them enforcing these very logical concepts upon ourselves. It would work if the mind of man were logical, but it is not. We have toted along all our barbaric centuries with us, and we carry all the past in our heads in the form of strange dreams and magic, fantasies and confusions, yearnings and images.

Our logic consists of making a sudden violent emotional judgment, and then thinking up a list of sober, sedate, objective reasons for the opinion already arrived at.

The more often the computer refutes these visceral judgments, the more we will resist it. But it, like all targets of hate, is without blame. We were enticed into all these sterile areas with all primitive passions intact, seduced by our intellectual selves into believing man could be transformed into urban man overnight - sedate, wise, considerate and gentle.

The temptation, of course, is to seek refuge in these sterile relationships, to use the imposed mechanics and regulations of our over-ordered culture as a way to hide ourselves from one another, or a way to deny the hang-up we suffer. For example...

I was on a scheduled flight several years ago, coming back to Florida from a trip to New York to dicker about a book. It was an off day in an off week in the off season, and it was a prop-jet aircraft. I would guess there were no more than 11 passengers aboard. I was alone at a window seat on the starboard side to the rear of the passenger section, well behind the wing.

At dusk over the Carolinas, the sunset was fantastic and unreal, a broad band of deep hot red from one edge of the horizon to the other.

There was no one in the double seat in front of me. One of the hostesses, a pretty dark-haired girl who looked of Italian or Spanish heritage, stopped and knelt with one knee on the aisle seat in the double vacancy just in front of me, and, with one hand on the back of the seat in front of me, and the other on the back of the seat in front of that, she bent over and stared out at that sunset.

Her face, in profile, was visible to me over the back of the seat. The furnace-red light shone through the port onto her gentle young Mediterranean face.

She remained that way far longer than the cursory inspection most people give sunsets. Her expression was somber and thoughtful, and then she began to smile to herself. It was a small, soft curve of parted lips, a smile that reflected an intimate memory of some kind, or an anticipation.

I had the feeling of an inadvertent invasion of her privacy, as when you happen to see the face of a sleeping stranger. But I watched her, and she turned her head quickly enough to catch me watching her. The softness of look and mouth faded, and she backed up briskly and stood in the aisle, and gave a few assertive little pats to her uniform. She looked at me again, this time with the bright social smile of her training, and with eyes that looked at me but did not see me. She saw Commodity, Job, Training, Processing, Routine.

“May I get you a drink, sir?"

Yes, Mediterranean girl touched by a sunset's beauty, you may get me a drink which in some specialist's electronic computations, allowing for direct costs plus a percentage of service overhead and allowance for space and weight aboard, cost the airline 32.758c.

Maybe it means nothing, or everything. If everybody went around trying to relate to everybody on a totally personal basis the result would be total chaos, and a complete nervous and emotional exhaustion for everyone.

But lately it seems that even the fragments of empathy and identification grow ever more rare.

It is easier to deal with people as commodities.

And safer.

He (she) might be some kind of a nut. I (we) might get involved.

Charlie, you aren't safe on the street in broad daylight any more, I swear.

Wonder why.