A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich

A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich

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Webster has defined nostalgia as a “wistful or excessively sentimental, sometimes abnormal yearning for a return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.”  Nostalgia is a psychological time machine that transplants adults to the good old days of another era. Once there, they will find that it is a state of mind, oblivious to actual or imagined barriers. For some it is a pleasant stroll through yesterday, a simple, less turbulent past.

Benjie Johnson is thirteen, Black, and well on his way to being hooked on heroine for good. Benjie’s wry humor and courage, his hard surface and vulnerability beneath make it impossible not to care about him. This book confronts a difficult subject and offers no easy solutions. The inner city students I presently teach can relate to much of what Benjie talks about. The Black English used is a variation but a continuation of school boy vernacular which we saw in the previously mentioned novels.

“Now I am thirteen, but when I was a chile, it was hard to be a chile because my block is a tough block and my school is a tough school. I’m not trying to cop out on what I do or don’t do cause man is man and chile is chile, but I ain’t a chile no more. Don’t nobody want to be no chile cause, for some reason, it just hold you back in a lotta ways; unless you be a rich chile like in some movie picture or like on T.V.—where everybody is livin it up and their room is perfect-lookin and their swimmin pool and their block and their house and they also ridin round in one rollin Cads with a tape-deck playin cool music and with air condition goin.”21

The block where Benjie lives is no peaceful place. People are getting mugged and robbed regularly. After age three when the relatives hold your hand you are on your own in the poorly lighted hallways of the tenement. “Walkin through dark, stinky hallways can be hard on anybody, man or chile, but a chile can get snatch in the dark and get his behind parts messed up by some weirdo I’m talkie bout them sexuals. Soon’s you get up to leven, twelve and so—they might cool it cause they scared you know where to land a good up punch, dig?

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I say alla this cause it’s a fact. I don’t like for folks cryin and bein sorry over me, cause I’m a man and if I can’t take it, well, later!”22 “Fuck the Society!” Lass thing the society can do is come along and boo-hoo with that sorry for you talk.

Benjie’s friend tries to give him advice, but Benjie resents him thinking he’s got it made and Benjie’s a loser. “It bugged me hard when Jimmy-Lee start layin them jive-ass-heart raps on me. Talkin like he already a social worker.” “Man, he says, straighten up cause you gonna kill yourself. There ain’t no way to be equal and reach somebody. He don’t reach me at all.”23

I hate school. I know what my picture is, even feel bad walkin to school, forcin my feet to move where they don’t wanta go. Schoolteachers can be some hard-eyed people, with talkie eyes; they mouth sayin one thing and them eyes be screamin another. Teach will say, “Be seated and open your book to page one nineteen and be prepared to read as I call your name. But them eyes be stonyin down on you, speakin the message: Shits, sit your ass down, open the book, and make a fool outta your dumb self when I start callin on the ones who the poorest readers.”24

“Bein a chile is bein a slave, and that’s why I’m glad I ain’t a chile no more. I’m damn sick and tireda everythin. It phony everywhere!” Just like Holden Benjie feels an alienation from society and a dislike of the phoniness.

For the parents and grandparents of these teenagers they may think back to when their dreams began. Through nostalgia they can stroll down memory lane. Once upon a time there was a land of laughing children and confident grownups called America the Beautiful. In rosy retrospect in that simpler country the Hollywood of the stars and the golden voice of radio, innocent comic books, funny papers and the big bands all blared out a message of cockeyed optimism. It was the time of Mickey Mouse watches and Lionel trains, of Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob Smith, of Fibber McGee and Molly, and of the reassuring “Saturday Evening Post” every Thursday. We must look for it now only on late-nite television for it is no more than a dream remembered, an America gone with the wind . . . 25

 The fact is that all times are tough for the people who must live through them, and glow golden only for those who survive them, or simply imagine them. Perhaps nostalgia is offering only a temporary relief from the discomforts of the real world, but it is also offering many Americans and adolescents a glimpse of the nation’s past.

Did the good old days really exist? Perhaps we all need to spend time talking to our folks about it.
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