On Friday, I read that the difference between upper- and lower-class childhoods can be measured in words heard by the child. By pre-school, a high-income child will have received about thirty-two million more words than a low-income child. An upper-class child will have eight million more words spoken to him per year — about twenty-two thousand words per day. This essay is about one-thousand-six-hundred words long. An upper-class child, for the first four years of his life, doing nothing at all special to bring about this state of affairs, hears fourteen extra essays worth of words per day.
By pre-school, the head start a spoken-to child has may be insurmountable. The less-spoken-to child has been set back for life — developmentally stunted in his ability to express himself, for having missed others expressing themselves to him. A low-income three-year-old knows, on average, half as many words as a high-income counterpart. I wondered, as did the researchers, how many problems could be symptoms of this lack of words.
And I thought about T.S. Eliot’s brief essay, “The Music of Poetry,” in which he claims that contributing to the health of a language is the sacred duty of that language’s poets: “He in turn has the privilege of contributing to the development and maintaining the quality, the capacity of language to express a wide range, and subtle gradation, of feeling and emotion.” I have thought of this wide range and subtle gradation often, as a poet and a person — trying to make myself understood to others, trying to understand them. I thought about it when trying (with mixed results) to teach creative writing, to share with my students the enormous distance between the word “joy” and a manifested feeling of joyfulness: a great chasm that good writing strives to bridge.
On Sunday, I walk out of my apartment and turn up the street, toward my first Chicago Pride parade. I’ve heard and seen a lot about it in the preceding week. I live about a half-mile south of Boystown, the first officially recognized gay neighborhood in the US, where even the 7-Eleven has covered its windows with "We Support Pride" rainbow posters.
The parade path runs a half-block from my apartment, and I’ve invited some friends from work to meet me outside my neighborhood bar to watch everything go by. It’s early, and the city hasn’t gathered yet (at this end of the parade route, at least) but there are cops lingering by the metal barriers, and I can hear the jumbled echoes of amplifiers — someone blasting music, a megaphone — running into each other between the buildings. It’s bright outside, and hot, and I’ve forgotten to put sunscreen on.
The megaphone, it turns out, belongs to a giant black-clad bald man with a thick goatee, who is standing on a crate amidst a cluster of anti-gay protesters bristling with signs. (I would provide here the text of some of the signs, which couldn’t have been more than four or six words each, but I’ve forgotten.) The protesters are penned in against a building by police barriers and police officers — about two officers per protester, it seems — and fill their allotted space entirely, shouting. They’re all wearing black and the signs are black, giving the mass a visual sense of void. The parade hasn’t reached us yet, so they shout at passersby.
Including, I suppose, me: I have to go around this tiny, Vatican-like nation to reach a point where I can cross the street and get to the bar. I keep my head down and ignore their communications, verbal and visual, as though they were panhandlers or survey-takers. Mostly, I feel embarrassed: for them and their adolescent rhetoric, for me and the gathering I’m “hosting.” I don’t want these people to reflect upon me.
”You’re the intolerant one,” shouts the giant bald man, through his megaphone, at a young woman behind me on the sidewalk who has decided to shout at him. “You’re heterophobic! You’re Christian-phobic! You’re normal-phobic!”
The bar won’t open until 1 so I pace around outside, imagining more and more elaborate apologies to give my friends when they arrive. Occasionally, the man’s lines of argument shock me out of my rueful reverie: that gays hate democracy, for example, as evidenced by their appeal to the court system when popular vote fails to legalize marriage. At one point, he starts in on the outfits of the young women on the sidewalk, without regard to their sexual orientation. To calm myself down, I run through the bald man’s simplistic errors: any notion of judicial review being “anti-democratic” is really beside the point (in addition to probably being misguided) because our nation is constitutionally a republic....
Matt, the first of my friends, arrives, and I demurely mumble some squishy apology — all that planning for nothing. “What are they doing here?” he asks. “Why do they even bother?”
We discuss half-heartedly whether they think they’re getting through to anyone. It seems to me they’d have to believe that someone was listening; Matt thinks they just want to have a presence, to represent opposition. The talking is what’s important, not what’s said. Perhaps there’s no real difference between the two, as with talking to your two-year-old. Or perhaps the protesters, like me, simply put a lot of faith in the power of words.
Then, “Call Me Maybe.” An apartment balcony, above and behind us, has filled with young men and women, fresh from college by the looks of them, dressed in exactly the sort of way the bald man was angry about a moment ago. “Crank the music!” I shout up to them: my first ever instance of wishing someone would turn up the volume on Carly Rae Jepsen. They shout back, and acquiesce, and dance as though dancing is their sole purpose on this earth. The protesters disappear.
The parade starts, the rest of our group arrives, we get PBR in the bar downstairs and drink it on the sidewalk in plastic cups. Groups roll or march or dance by in red, in blue, in orange, in yellow. We cheer for the treasurer and the aldermen whether or not they represent our respective wards because right now they represent us. Matt begins calling back to the signs by name — “Yeah, county prosecutor!” — or, if the name is not clear, by color or shape. “Yeah, green!” he shouts.
There is so much to shout at, so much expression. The whole event, it seems, is really about expression: about pride, openness, the opposite of hiding. “Go back into the closet!” the bald man had shouted, showing that he, too, understood that this afternoon was not just a celebration of existence but also a celebration of self-declaration. Communication. And by the variety of people lined up here, the variety of garments they wear or don’t wear, the variety of pictures and fonts with which they have adorned themselves, one can see there is much to communicate.
I imagine trying to explain to anyone — a Martian, perhaps — what each individual symbol in this river of symbols means, what the little slogans mean, what the logos mean, what the colors mean. Maybe this is one unintended consequence of a childhood full of advertisements, a semiotic relationship with the world I developed in the cereal aisle. I could say: those five men are marching in a line, holding flags straight up in front of them, because that way of marching with flags is generally done by members of the military; the various symbols and colors represent specific branches of the US armed forces and indicate that their wearers served; I’m taking off my glasses and trying to unobtrusively wipe my eyes because there is a long history of official and unofficial persecution of homosexuals in the military, and their open self-identification represents an act of significant courage, and the positive response of this crowd represents a step forward for our culture.
But I do manage to keep myself together while the American Veterans march past, by pretending to just be squinting in the sunlight. I keep myself together for the enormous Chicago Coalition of Welcoming Churches, an incredible mass of colors and bright signs that seems to stretch indefinitely back: an entire parade could have been fielded just by parishioners and pastors and priests who like gay people and are happy to say so. I am undone, though, by the Dykes on Bikes.
They roll slowly into place and stop in formation in front of us, held up by some stoppage in front of them. Eight rhinoceros-sized Harleys with two women each, all black and chrome from head to wheelbase, faces stoic and grim, letting their engines and exhaust pipes sound their Whitmanian yawps so sharp and explosive that, for a while, there are no other sounds. I am broken by their loudness, by their brash self-assertion, by the grand mass of symbols they’ve taken for reasons of their own choosing and zipped and welded to the image they have decided to show all of us — and we clap, even though our tiny bursts are swallowed up by their internal combustion. And I step back from the crowd into the shade of the little trees and buildings behind the sidewalk and try to hide my small expressions of awe and gratitude, but only for a short while.