“Hey, yo!” said The Wannabe Menace. “This is for Trayvon!”
I looked to my left on the Monorail platform to the cadre of black teenage boys I had been making an effort to ignore. Vegas is Vegas, and people get to have fun their own way. When I’m not hectoring strangers, I am quiet and self-contained. Other people are loud and boisterous. Different strokes for different folks. It’s all fun for everyone, so long as we leave each other alone.
But that was not to be. The Wannabe Menace had his right fist raised high, like he was ready to pound me. Half of his friends seemed excited, the other half appalled. I think he was waiting for me to cower, or perhaps to offer up a bribe to save my skin. Instead, I just looked at him, studying him with a blank indifference as though I were looking at an insect safely corralled in a petri dish.
I said. “Interesting. How did you justify your bad behavior last month?”
His friends busted up at that shot, all of them. The Wannabe Menace was still putting on the menacing act, which is not good. I don’t think he was a real thug, but real thugs don’t like to be mocked. It’s their intense discomfort with their self-awareness of their own inferiority — as measured by their own standard of values — that makes them thugs in the first place. A thug is a self-identified loser who prays — and preys — in the vain hope that he will terrorize the world into declaring him a winner instead.
Lucky me, after a couple of beats The Wannabe Menace dropped his arms and started to laugh, too. He said, “You some kinda crazy!”
I nodded. “Crazy-stupid. The Las Vegas way.”
And they were pretty boys, all of them, tall and thin and beautifully turned out — by their own standards if no one else’s. They weren’t thugs, they were wannabe-menacing middle-class kids from high schools rich enough to send them to Sin City for the international Summer basketball tournament held every year at the Thomas and Mack Center at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. The town has been flush with bright, energetic kids from all over the world for the whole time I’ve been here. I’ve had a marvelous time kidding them about how unfair it is for them to be in Las Vegas five years too young for it to be any fun for them — a sentiment they squarely endorse even as they take in every free spectacle the city has to offer.
That much is news, and I tend not to write news in Willie stories. I used to, when I was younger, but then I realized that everything I want to talk about is timeless and universal, so I tend to write that way. For all I know, I could be a hundred years dead by the time you get around to reading this. The news of the day is nothing, the same dumbass stories over and over again. The news of the ages is everything, and all I really care about is everything.
And the ‘Trayvon’ business is news, too. You can look it up if you want to, but it strikes me, so far, as a completely temporary hiccough in the largely successful integration of white and black Americans that has been proceeding slowly but surely for the past sixty years. When the big news broke a couple of weeks ago, I was on the lookout for trouble, because — as here — it was the kind of story that invites ugly display behavior from showy hotheads. There were a few isolated incidents in other cities, but, much to its credit, Las Vegas kept its cool.
“I like your outfits,” I said to all of the boys. It was all thug-wear, but every garment had been cleaned and pressed by a real mom. “Is it your goal to make people afraid of you?”
A couple of the boys nodded eagerly, but one of the others — call him Earnest, because that he was — said, “Naw, this is just the way we roll.”
I said, “‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!'”
“Say what?!” said The Wannabe Menace.
“It’s Scots. Here it is in normal English: ‘O would some power the giftie give us, to see ourselves as others see us.'”
“Is that supposed to mean somethin’?”
“It means that if you don’t want to frighten people, you’re dressed wrong. If you look like a gangster, people will react to you like a gangster. This may be why Trayvon Martin is dead. He may have been a real thug, or he may just have been a goofy teenage kid dressed up in a thug costume. He’s dead either way.”
I was boring them, I know. Some of the boys had turned Robbie Burns into a rap poet: “‘Oh would some pow’r the giftie give us, to see ourselves as others see us!'”
“Oh, man,” I said. “That’s so fine. You hit the trochees just right, but on the off-beat. Very well done.”
“Hey, Crazy-Stupid,” The Wannabe Menace demanded. “What the hell you talkin’ ’bout?”
“Poetry, gentlemen. The manliest of the arts.” This observation was met with mass derision, but that sort of thing impedes me not at all. With a great dudgeon, I declaimed, “‘Arma virumque cano!’ — ‘I sing of arms and the man.’ The first line of The Aeneid.”
One of the boys said, “We had that in AP Latin.”
Let’s call this young man Vergil’s Truant, bright eyes and a precision fade in his hair that only black men can pull off. Pretend gangster. Wannabe rapper. Basketball prodigy. Advanced Placement Latin. All in one kid.
“Did you read it?”
He smiled sheepishly and I knew he hadn’t. The tragedy of American public education is not that the curriculum is dumbed-down and progressively dumbered-down — though it is — but that the high school social culture anticipates that everyone will do as close to no work as possible in exchange for a straight-A transcript. We are a nation of ignoramuses, so completely self-stultified that we cannot even plumb the depths of our ignorance.
I said, “Before women took it over and ruined it with greeting cards, poetry was rap, gents — bloody and savage and heroic and resolutely metrical — rhythmic to the bone. Soldiers marched to it. A trochee is a metrical foot, and the foot in the trochee is the right foot. Marching is the reason for all those raps you see in the army movies.”
It may have been the case, by now, that they regretted having messed with me in the first place, but I don’t pass on my chances to change the world for the better.
“Do you fellows want to have some fun tonight?”
“What do you think we doin’?” said The Wannabe Menace.
“I think you’re wasting irreplaceable time, but that’s your business. Do you guys like titties?”
That got a response, laughing and poking and punching and more chatter than I could comprehend. “If you want, I can give you two Vegas titty games that anyone of any age can play for free.”
More laughter, but Vergil’s Truant spoke up directly and formally: “Say on, O Muse.”
“I love it! Here’s the deal: Get off the Monorail at the Flamingo, then hustle across The Strip to Caesars Palace. That’s about a half-mile walk, because this train was built by dumbasses, but what can you do? Anyway, here’s the first game. Go into the hotel through the main entrance, where all the bellboys are. Right inside there’s a huge statue of The Three Graces.”
“I seen that!” said one of the other boys. “They all three naked!”
“That’s right. Ancient art was public pornography, among its other objectives. Here’s the game: Two of the real-life models for that rendition of The Three Graces had breast implants. Your challenge is to figure out which of the three still had her real boobs.”
This was an adventure they could wrap their minds around, as could any young man — even a young man as old as me.
I think Earnest wanted to appear to be above all that. He said, “What’s the other game?”
“Okay, to your right from that statue is The Palace Casino, the original gaming room in Caesar’s Palace — a big circular space with a huge chandelier over everything. You’re too young to walk through it, but you can walk around it. On the far wall there are two bas reliefs — think flat sculptures. One of them is a pitched battle scene, very heroic. I’m not sure where it’s from. Trajan’s Column, maybe. You might take a snapshot back to your Latin teacher to try to figure it out.”
“And the other one…?” Earnest again. If I had to guess, I would say that he was in a subtle competition to wrest leadership of the group away from The Wannabe Menace.
I smiled for half a beat, then I said, “The Rape of the Sabine Women.”
This was choice subject matter, and I waited for them to settle down.
“Do you know the story? When Romulus and his men had finished building the city of Rome, they realized they had no women of their own to bring grace and children to their new town. So they suited up in their battle gear and went and grabbed all the hottest babes from a nearby Sabine village. Literally grabbed ’em, stole ’em by force. Their capture is what’s illustrated in the sculpture — very graphically. The Sabine men proved useless in rescuing them and the Sabine women said, ‘Dood! We totally traded up!'”
Much more laughter, and one of the boys said, “They ratchets!”
“The Sabine men got all the other local tribes to band together to help them take their women back, but the women put a stop to that. They said, ‘Should we prefer to be widows or orphans? Should our children lose their fathers or their grandfathers?’ And that sealed the peace.”
To this they said nothing. They said nothing noisily, but boys can’t help being boys.
“Do you get the point of the story? It’s about exogamy — out-marriage. When a black man marries a white woman, or the other way around, two families that may once have hated each other are now united by their grandchildren. Out-marriage puts your own tiny ambassadors in your enemy’s camp — with the result that you can’t be enemies any longer.”
“What about the titties?” one of the boys called out.
I smiled at that. “You won’t be disappointed.” And that’s true. Ancient art was public pornography to give onlookers an incentive to absorb those other objectives — such as an object lesson in the salutary benefits of exogamy.
To The Wannabe Menace I said, “I know you’re not a bad guy, but this is a town full of cameras.” I pointed, one-by-one, to the smoked-glass half-globes of the pan-tilt-zoom cameras on the platform. “If the Metro Police decide you’re a thug, they will put a hurt on you you will never forget, then they’ll lock you up for ninety days. Your life will be ruined, and for what?”
He nodded, very manfully I thought.
“Heroes fight for justice, and that’s admirable. But there is no justice in hurting random strangers. Besides that, heroes know how to chill out and have a good time when there’s no need for fighting.”
He smiled at that and his smile was stunning, an undiluted delight.
“It’s still Vegas, gentlemen, even when you’re underage. Have a good time tonight.”