The Penis Papers, Part 5

"Look at that thing!" laughed my black classmates.

Published May 19, 2003 7:15PM (EDT)

The tricycle accident

Tony works for a gravel company in Oakland, Calif. He is an overweight, balding white man of 50, and has been doing this job since he got out of the U.S. Marine Corps in 1979. He served in Vietnam. He's married and has two sons, both of whom are grown.

I got a gut now, but I was a pretty cute kid. My mother loved me and she dressed all of us very nicely. I liked being a cowboy, so she bought me this fringe leather jacket when I was about 4. It was way cool. I felt like the Lone Ranger in it. Way cool. But I didn't have it for long because I lost it.

I grew up in San Leandro, Calif., which at that time was a little town with nothing going for it. Still is. There was a vacant lot down the street from where we lived on Dutton Avenue, and I used to play war and cowboys and Indians in the lot with my friend Tommy Wurzback. I think a lot of kids had played in that lot because there was even a series of trenches in it, where you could run up and down, defending the fort, fighting off the Apaches. It's funny thinking about that vacant lot now. I mean, we just went over there and played. If I'd have allowed that with my kids growing up in the '80s, they probably would have been abducted or something. Killed in a drive-by.

But, you know, in San Leandro in 1957 you didn't get abducted. Anyway, Tommy and I were playing in the lot, and I took off my new cowboy jacket. Because it was hot. We played some more, and then I got onto my tricycle to ride home. It was only a block away, and when I got home, my mother fixed me and Tommy a glass of milk and some cookies. I was eating the cookies -- chocolate chip! And then my mother asked me where was the jacket? Jesus God! I was afraid right away, because I'd forgotten it. She got really mad at me, and took me right out to the sidewalk, put me back on my tricycle, and marched me right back to the vacant lot.

Well, the jacket was gone. Somebody'd taken it. I couldn't even remember where I'd taken it off, and we looked all over for it. My mother got so mad at me that she told me to get on my trike and go right back home and up to my room, and my dad was going to hear about it when he got home. I was terrified. So I was pedaling really fast, in tears, you know, sobbing! And turning the corner a little too fast, I laid the tricycle down on its side. I mean, actually, I flew off it headfirst, over the handlebars. And when I landed on the handlebars themselves, I tore up my pecker pretty badly. I mean, I cut it! Probably just a small one because, Jesus, my pecker itself wasn't all that big! But I cut it, and blood was running out of the cut and it hurt really badly.

My mother came running up behind me because I was screaming, and I'd opened up my pants to see why my pecker hurt so bad, and when she saw it she screamed and picked me up and ran me home, and ran me to the hospital, and Jesus Christ did it hurt! I don't know what I thought had happened. But I knew that this wasn't like just some other cut, like on my finger or something. This cut was a bad one because of where it was. I mean, if you had asked me before that happened whether my penis was important, I would have said, "Gosh, I guess. But I don't know." Once that happened, though, and especially when the doctor was putting the stitches in it, to close it up, I knew that something bad, really bad, had happened.

I couldn't watch him, but I sure could feel him. It was like a sewing machine going right through that skin there, pulling that thread. There was even a sound to the thread, like some kind of, I don't know, the only thing I can think of now is like rope running through your hands. The doctor'd deadened it, you know, with a shot. But the shot itself was awful! Just awful! I was screaming, and my mother was holding on to me. God, I was afraid! And so was she! I think of it now and, you know, I'm OK. I've had a successful sex life and kids and so on, and six months after it happened I probably didn't think about it too much. I've even gotten some significant laughs when I've told people the story. But, you know, in the end I don't laugh. I was so afraid, I thought I was going to die or something. And if the cut had been worse. I mean, if I'd been really injured, I might have died right then and there, at least in terms of my life, my feelings.

My poor white pecker

Wayne is a restaurateur who had a career in music management, representing blues and rock 'n' roll musicians. He says that he was one of the few honest white managers of black artists, and that he always ensured that they were paid properly by clubs and record companies. He is 60 years old and lives in Detroit.

There were these two fellows in a gym class I took in 1957 at Oakland High School: Latrell and Lavell Jackson. Their father worked at the Gallo Salami factory in San Francisco, which coincidentally is where my father worked.

Latrell and Lavell were sophomores when I was a freshman, and they were both on the wrestling team. Twin brothers, very dark black guys and very small. They could also sing, and they were the high school stars in the drama club and in assemblies and so on. They were our high school's answer to people like Bo Diddley and the doo-wop groups. Really talented guys. The high school was probably half black and half white among the students, and all the white students came from above MacArthur Boulevard while the black students came from below it.

There was pretty much a divide between the groups -- the white kids would eat in the cafeteria and the black kids would go off-campus, to the little markets and diners down MacArthur. It was self-imposed segregation.

Gym class was the great leveler, though, particularly if you were white. I have to say, and I mean this very honestly, probably naively, that I didn't really notice how different the two groups were. But I'm sure as hell that the black guys knew it. The white boys were the recipients of the greatest affirmative action program that ever existed -- that is, by being white. But in those days, a white boy didn't question the privilege, not being aware in any way that it existed.

But in the gym class, everything evened out. After class, we'd all be in the shower, in the time-honored fashion of boys being in the shower. There was a lot of sideways glances, looking away quickly, not wanting to be caught wondering what other guys looked like. Silence. Schoolboy furtiveness. But one day I was standing at my locker, just finishing toweling myself off, when Latrell Jackson, who had the locker next to mine, looked down at my penis, pointed directly at it, and burst into laughter.

"Look at that thing!" he said.

I'm a redheaded Irish boy barely capable of getting beyond a sunburn during the summer. A tan for me is out of the question. My penis is as white as, well, even whiter than the rest of me. I was holding my towel and, suddenly, I was confronted by six or seven more black kids, including Latrell's brother Lavell. A cacophony of talk and laughter broke out as I was suddenly the object of everybody's glee. It was the kind of talk where everybody's going on at the same time, very loudly, nobody listening to anyone else. It was noisy, outright thunderous laughter, and my poor white pecker and red pubic hair were the source of it all.

I was in that position that a man very often finds himself in, where he is being made fun of, maybe even a fool of, yet he feels that he has to remain manly. You know, John Wayne, etc. Strong silent type. So I held the towel, you know, sort of in front of me, because I was embarrassed. But I was also male. So I felt I had to be stoic, silent, indifferent to the hilarity around me. With that in mind, I held the towel not always in front of me. I let it fall away or wave in front of me or flutter. I was trying to be cool.

Now, when I think back on it, I think of Manolete and his cape work, the way he tantalized the bull and drove it to distraction, all the while himself a model of humorlessness and comportment. But Manolete was the greatest bullfighter in history, while I was 14 and a freshman at Oakland High School. There's another difference. The great Miura bull standing in puzzled fury before Manolete was not also doubled over in laughter.

I didn't have the nerve to laugh back at Latrell and Lavell, whose penises looked so radically different from mine. To do so would have been an unwise choice for me, I think, given that in that moment I was the only white kid in sight. But I was a very embarrassed white kid, trying to keep cool, the sole possessor of a milk-white pecker and, suddenly confronted with that fact, angry about it.

I was being embraced

George is 73 years old and spent his career as an executive for a woman's underwear manufacturing firm in Chicago. He has several children who have migrated to other parts of the country. His wife, Dolores, died recently and he is now living alone.

Dolores was, well, she was just everything to me. I think it's unusual to find many people who would say that of someone to whom they'd been married as long as we were married. Most of the couples I know spend the latter half of their marriages bickering at each other, in silence or suppressed anger. Wishing, I guess, to be rid of each other. But we didn't. She was always generous. And I don't mean that she abandoned herself to just take care of me. That happens, too, with a lot of couples, especially of our generation. Betty gives herself over to satisfying Joe's every whim, and that's a source of anger for her right there! It's my contention that no one can give their own interests up voluntarily and not resent it. Even those wives who bought in to the middle-class ethic of the '50s that the little lady should stay at home with the kids. Even if they played that role to perfection, beneath the wedding-cake cuteness of that ideal lies a heart slowly growing inflamed, slowly going crazy.

Dolores was her own person, and it was that that I really wanted in her. There was none of the kind of institutional war in our relationship that exists in so many others, the kind of landmine that is stepped on with the snide remark, the recollected slight, the intentional downturn in the voice.

This was especially so when we made love. Here's how my penis felt when I made love to my wife. There was a pulse in her, especially when she was having an orgasm. She would get to a place where an orgasm would last, or at least come and go, for several minutes. She especially liked me to make love to her from behind because I could reach further inside her, I think. But I could feel this pulse just before and all during the time she was having an orgasm. I felt, inside her, that I was being embraced, which of course was true. But there was more than just a meeting of our parts, you might say. Because that pulse from her was to me the clue to how much she cared for me. It caressed me for minutes on end, all around the end of my penis, I guess coming from the tissue spreading out from her cervix.

Jesus! Just that kind of medical language makes it sound hardly loving at all. But I felt loved because I felt that pulse. It was like words. It was as though she were whispering to me, "I love you, sweet." (That's what she used to call me: "sweet.") "I love you." The last time I felt it was the last time we made love, about three months before she died. She was alive at that moment, even though she was beginning to get pretty sick, and I was absolutely alive just because of her holding me inside her and making me feel caressed and enjoyed.

By Terence Clarke

Terence Clarke is a novelist and screenwriter in San Francisco.

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