Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Alan Turing at the bus station

I'm a guy.

I'm a white guy.

I'm a straight, white male. There are many things that I will never understand, not fully, because that's how the world is made.

Here's today's example. For several years, I lived in Berkeley. I would take the bus into San Francisco to work. It was a nice commute, despite the dingy, depressing bus terminal.

To leave the bus station, you had to walk downstairs, past a long line of benches that held people: homeless people, crazy people, disoriented people. For all I know, the police just pointed people at the station whenever they seemed to be at loose ends.

The men's bathroom was pretty awful. It appeared to be relatively clean, but there was always the pungent smell of homeless person. Night or day, the bathroom was never empty, so presumably some people were hanging around to make hook-ups. Once I saw an enormous man, probably 6'5", entirely naked, his pants puddled around his ankles. He was smiling and enthusiastically masturbating in an open stall. Life in the big city.

One morning as I was walking to work, a hispanic man approached me as I left the building. He was in his late 50's, with greatly thinning hair. His body was as plump as a pear. His clothes were rumpled, but they didn't appear dirty. He had a worried look, like a man who had many things taken from him during his life. In Berkeley, he would have been a pick-up laborer, one of the many who wait by the hardware stores for quick contracting jobs.

"Do you have the time?" he asked. He had a moderate accent. Mexico, I guessed.

I told him.

"I've seen you walking through here before," he said.

Since I am a straight, white male, with an upbringing in the mid-west, my first reactions always tend toward the naive and earnest.

"Oh, sure, I'm through here twice a day." I said cheerily, moving past him on the sidewalk. I probably gave him a smile.

He started to speak very rapidly, then, since his one chance was walking away from him.

"You're a very good-looking man, a very handsome man."

Both my hands went up immediately with open palms. This could mean slow down, or stop, or it could have meant that I was going to make a fist. I might have said "whoah" out loud.

"I didn't mean it!" he quickly added, with a faint tone of panic in his voice.

I sighed. I couldn't think of what to say. My instinct is always to comfort and help, and how could I help someone who was in this situation?

"Yes, you did, " I said. "Listen, I can't help you. Have a good day." I definitely smiled at him this time before walking away. It could have been my kindly smile, the one that can mean: I'm so sorry you're going through this. Or perhaps it was my stranger smile, which usually means: Although a stranger, I am genuinely safe to be around and you need not worry. In this case, it was closer to meaning: it's really ok that you're gay, I don't hate you, and I'm not going to hit you. You're safe.

What in the world had this man endured, an ugly, aging, hispanic gay man? Had he been completely rejected by his family? Was he still in the closet? Did he tell his priest what he does? How much hate had been directed his way? Did he love himself? Was he consumed with self-loathing? Does he still take communion? We'll never know. I only know that he was genuinely anguished and desperate and afraid.

No matter how bad a day I was about to embark upon, I would not be suffering his life of quiet desperation. Indeed, it's impossible for me to fully understand anguish like his, cossetted as I am by a race and gender that let me glide through life usually categorized as the normal baseline. To the extent that I understand gay life in San Francisco, this guy had been dealt one of the worse hands possible. I'm so sorry and so angry that there is so much hysteria about homosexuality. I'm sorry that there are straight guys so jacked up with fear that they cannot even imagine seeing Brokeback Mountain. It's just pointless, stupid prejudice.

I was reminded of this long-ago incident today by a heartbreaking story in dailykos, Living Brokeback Mountain. Don't skip the comments.

I mentioned in a post last month that Alan Turing was one of my heroes. Half of that was simply his intellectual accomplishments: unheralded at the time, he did more to win World War II than any single man. Eisenhower, Patton and other great generals were motivators of men and extremely capable military leaders. But if those men had been killed in battle early on, there were other very capable leaders who could have gotten the job done. In contrast, no one could have replaced Turing at Bletchley Park. He was a great mathematician who came up with results that not only started whole industries, but also saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Hundreds of thousands of lives.

The other half was the result of a single footnote in a computer theory text book that I read with mounting amazement one bleary night during college. It pointed that despite Turing's triumphs in World War II, he was prosecuted in the 1950s for being homosexual, and this led to chemical castration, depression, and an apparent suicide. It's an astonishing and unique story. I first read it in the 1981 biography of Turing, definitive at the time, which was turned into a play (so so) and a TV movie (pretty good). As it turns out, a new short biography of Turing is out, which reinterprets his sad and triumphant life, and perhaps correcting some of the errors in the earlier biography. It is reviewed this week in the New Yorker by Jim Holt, with an admirably short précis of Turing's life.

Whether Turing's suicide came from the public shame, or his disgust at the gynecomastia (bitch tits) that the chemical castration gave him, it's all of a piece. Turing was hounded to death by his own government for being who he was — despite his being a hero to Britain no less than was Admiral Nelson. Nothing so dramatic has happened to my bus-station accoster, but his life strikes me as being exactly the same in terms of its pathos. He will continue his life, openly or desperately, until the world simply moves on and betters itself. These kinds of blighted, incomplete lives will persist until we start to hate all hate the way we currently hate certain kinds of love.

(Tulip photo courtesy of Prof. Stephen A. Edwards at Columbia.)


Blogger Connie said...

This is one of the best essays I've read in a good long while on the human condition and the true state of the world.

I loved certain sentences that you put together, like "will persist until we start to hate all hate the way we currently hate certain kinds of love".

Masterfully written! Bravo!

Tuesday, 21 February, 2006  

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