August 15, 2003
We set off for Richmond, Indiana and the traffic is like a line of cattle cars beginning in Philadelphia streaming all the way to Pittsburgh. I don’t remember the Pennsylvania Turnpike ever being so congested and dense with automobiles and trucks and people and confusion. The rest areas are a mass of humanity and smell of disinfectant, cash, body odor, new plastic, sugar drinks, and fried food. You are risking your life getting off this three hundred mile strip of highway to grab a snack and take a leak. Re-entering the road is like trying to attach your car to an alien freight train doing seventy-five, driven by thousands of desperate engineers.
I don’t know why we are taking this trip, really. We have a name. That is all.
In 1992 the state of Ohio created a process for adoptees born before 1970 to petition for their original birth certificates. I found out about this in 1996. It took me a year to work up the energy to send off for all the pertinent documents Ohio wanted me to file, but then I just let them all sit for another eighteen months after I discovered that I needed to send in a notarized form with copies of my social security card and driver’s license attached. I couldn’t find my social security card and didn’t have a copier, nor did I have the mojo required to apply to the Social Security Administration for a new card, go to Kinko’s, make the copies, and then walk half a block down the road from Kinko’s to our local AAA office where as a member I was entitled to one notarized signature a year. Finally, I just left the documents in an unmarked folder on the corner of my desk and forgot about them. Over the next year they got buried underneath other folders and magazines with articles I intended to read.
September 11, 2001 came along, though, and got me thinking about how limited life can be if you let things go. That day of insanity got a lot of us thinking about a lot of things. I know several people who lost loved ones in the fall of the Twin Towers. They hold your gaze when you greet them, and make you feel that you need to do something with your life. I recalled Mrs. Green on that day; Mrs. Green when I was a very young child. I wondered what she was thinking about terrorists and suicide bombers invading America.
Mrs. Green took care of us while our mother was in the hospital giving birth to our sister. My brother Jesse was almost two and I was three. Mrs. Green lived with her family in a segregated part of town near Hickman High School. It was late July in Columbia, Missouri, 1961. We had gone out for a long walk around town. There was a particularly peaceful and shady little park in front of the county courthouse to which she would often take us. It was the lunch hour, and the day–I remember clearly–was electric hot. I was three and a half years old and everyone had been working diligently to toilet train me. As we left the courthouse park, I told Mrs. Green I needed to go to the bathroom. I remember that she got an uncomfortable look on her face. I don’t recall if she resisted, but I would have been persistent regardless.
We walked across the street to Gem Drugstore and Café. Since it was downtown and across the street from the courthouse, there were always reporters, lawyers, secretaries, cops, and assorted white-collar professionals hanging out, drinking sodas, having lunch, shooting the breeze–whatever it is that people did back then in our little community. Mrs. Green let me open the door and then pushed my brother’s stroller in directly behind me. We stood in the entryway to the drugstore and found the place packed with folks eating lunch. The room was cooled by several air conditioning units in the windows of the store whirring and buzzing amidst the hubbub of chatter and clanking dishes.
As we stood there, conversations were dying right in front of our eyes. Then there was silence, except for the air conditioners. I remember feeling confused and turning to Mrs. Green. I remember that she kept her eyes down, looking at my brother, waiting, it seemed.
A balding, fat man came out from the back with a towel over his shoulders. He stood in the middle of the room and said, “Sorry. Ain’t no niggers allowed in here, M’am.”
I knew and understood exactly what he was doing. I may only have been three, but in our town in those days segregation was ubiquitous, and there were open discussions everywhere about coons, jigaboos, and niggers. Though a college town, Columbia, Missouri is in the center of one of the most racially conflicted states in the Union. During the Civil War, although we remained above the Mason-Dixon line and officially sided with the Union (and one of our favorite sons was Ulysses S. Grant), unofficially, this state of farmers and small towns supported the Confederacy cause and even became a haven for renegades from the South after the war. Jesse James and his gang got started in western Missouri in part as a reaction against the “Northern” domination of the heartland economy after 1865. Racism in the 1950s and 1960s was by no means accepted the way it was in Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, but it wasn’t hidden or sublimated the way it was on the Eastern Seaboard and north of us in Chicago, Detroit, and the Twin Cities.
I was barely beyond the toddler stage, but I understood what was being said to my babysitter. I also knew that the whole game boiled down to one basic thing: the color of a person’s skin. And I had skin that was certainly not “white.” Somehow I’d escaped all the prejudice and degradation by getting adopted into the family of highly educated professionals, but I knew implicitly that the laws of segregation might just as well apply to me as they did to Mrs. Green.
Standing at the entryway to Gem Drugstore, I felt sick to my stomach. Turning again to my babysitter, this time her head was raised, I saw that she’d taken one step back.
“He just needs to use the facilities,” she said quietly.
The man surveyed the room and this black woman with two little “white” boys.
“Sorry, M’am,” he said firmly.
“Please,” Mrs. Green said just as firmly.
There were probably twenty or thirty patrons and employees watching. I really needed to pee. The cigar and cigarette smoke in the little diner area made breathing slightly painful. But I was beginning to feel very sad as well. Mrs. Green just waited.
Finally, the man said, “Oh, all right. Hold on.” He called to one of the waitresses.
“We’ll have one of the girls take him,” he said, turning to Mrs. Green.
I followed a waitress through the back to a small, dusty bathroom. She waited for me outside while I peed. When I opened the door, she handed me a big paper cup full of pink lemonade and said, “I’m sorry we can’t let your babysitter in here sweetie. It’s the law.” Then she patted me on the head and led me back out to the front of the room where everyone was talking again. Mrs. Green was waiting on the street with my brother in the heat.
That is my first personal memory of segregation. But it was not my last. I remember going to the Hall Movie Theater and seeing signs directing “Negroes” up to the balcony. The Hall was the only movie house in town that even allowed African Americans as patrons. I remember driving by Douglas School and seeing all of the city’s black children outside during recess. I remember as well hearing people I knew talk about “coloreds” and wondering if they realized that my skin was dark and that I too was “colored.”
I grew up in what some would have called a Caucasian household. I grew up listening to my parents talk about the insanity of racism. My father went to college at Antioch with Coretta Scott. My mother helped found the local chapter of the NAACP. They were both academics and fearless in their opposition to prejudice. In the mid-1960s they helped lead a coupe of sorts against our local school board, spearheading a vote to integrate our school system. I remember the day in third grade that Gary Carter, Harold Gordon, and Jerry Butler all joined our class. I haven’t seen them in years now, but that was a wondrous day for me. Here in the early part of the 21st century, I now understand why.
My values, the way I speak and carry myself, my sense of independent intellect, my arrogance, all of that was learned at the feet of my marvelous, loving parents. I understood probably before I could really talk that the notion of racial prejudice was one of the greatest evils in our country. Mrs. Green might have been our housekeeper, but we spent weekends with her when our parents went out of town. I knew she and her family all had dark skin and that they spoke a different way than my parents, but I also loved and respected her and it never once occurred to me that the differences between us meant anything. My parents were diligent and even relentless in those days talking to me about race. It was the early 1960s, of course, and most liberals around the country were adamant that segregation and discrimination were immoral and had to end. In my case, some forty years later, I am also sure that my parents were aware that they needed to be clear with their mixed race son — for that’s what people in my family told me I was — that the color of a person’s skin meant about as much as their height or their weight. I was raised to believe that the very question of race did not matter — especially as it related to me. The only thing that mattered was how you were socialized, what you learned, and how you approached life. But a little voice in my head never stopped wondering, “What am I? Where did I come from?”
I spent a whole year thinking about my adoption and what it meant after September 11th. When you’re adopted you’re less than an accident—you don’t know the circumstances of your birth; your very conception seems to have come about by the snap of two fingers in the backseat of a car around 11:30 P.M. on a rainy Saturday night; and, in my case anyway, you have no idea what your racial or ethnic heritage is.
So on the first anniversary of that beautiful morning that mixed madness and death with a clear blue sky and bright orange sun, ushering us all into the twisted realities of the 21st century, I took the day off and pulled all my documentation together so that I could finally make the state of Ohio happy. Three months later I received a copy of my original birth certificate in the mail. My “biological father” was registered as “Unknown,” but my birth mother’s name and even her address at the time of my adoption in 1958 were listed. I spent several days trying to track her down on the Internet, all to no avail. I used MapQuest to plot out the address given on the document. But cartoon maps are not very satisfying when you want answers to real questions. After a week or so of dithering, I put the document away again in the folder, but this time I labeled it The Formality of Occurrence. It was a bright yellow folder and I hid it in the back of my file cabinet. The term was something I’d read somewhere. The formality of occurrence. At the time, I couldn’t remember where I’d come across it, nor did I really think much about what it meant. All I knew was that my life was incomplete because I was adopted. I was stuck in the infinity of possibility, a story with no beginning. Somehow, I felt that putting things in that yellow folder with that weird label was the only way I could come close to filling my identity up with even a semblance of significance.
After that, I began to put everything I came across about adoption and racial identity in that folder: how people chart out their connections; all the articles I could find on Kevin Bacon and the six degrees of separation supposedly connecting our entire global culture; little essays by famous writers on what it felt like to adopt a child; feature pieces on the dilemmas and joys of inter-racial adoption. I remember thinking that I had no idea what I was doing. I was just stuffing this file folder full of anything that seemed significant. I couldn’t even remember where I’d read about the formality of occurrence. I walked around for months with that term in my head, scanning magazines and the Internet for anything even remotely relevant to the notion of the story of acquired lives and the fragile net of connection that we all seek all of the time, even if we’re not aware of our seeking.
I put the official Ohio birth certificate away in that folder, then stuffed it in the back of my filing cabinet. I told no one about what I’d received in the mail. My birth mother’s name roiled around in my head after that, but it became almost frightening to consider her after awhile.
Her name was Diana Hope Brown. The backup documentation to the certificate also gave the name of the baby–Anthony Tobias Brown. Me.
In February 2003 I turned forty-five and my family gave me lots of nice gifts. After I’d opened them, we sat around the dining room table eating cake and ice cream while I told stories of growing up in central Missouri in the 1960s — how we’d worn Keds sneakers, played baseball from early morning to late afternoon, gone swimming and fishing in a lake near our house; how by the late 1960s racism slowly seemed to almost have evaporated, and how my best friend in sixth grade was named Jacky Cave. Jacky was African American and went on to become a successful artist in Kansas City, but we drifted apart in high school. I have a painting that Jacky gave me when we once had dinner while I was home from college. The painting is a watercolor of a murky forest in the rain. It hangs in our dining room and is one of my most prized possessions.
After awhile, as I talked about Jacky and other friends, I began to wonder about all the things I didn’t know about my life. I’d had a couple glasses of wine. It didn’t take long before I started thinking about Diana Brown, wondering if she ever thought about me on February 26th.
Telling my wife and sons to wait, I rushed upstairs to my study. The folder was still there in the back of the file drawer. I yanked out my birth certificate and hurried downstairs. As I entered the dining room, I contemplated for the hundredth time the fact that I had no idea where the term formality of occurrence came from. Maybe I’d just made the term up. Certainly, the definition had to be of my own doing. I returned to our dining room and sat down at the table wondering whether it was just my lot in life to fantasize reality into existence.
“You all have been so good to me,” I told my family, “now I’ve got something for you.”
I handed my wife, Marion, the sheets of official paper and watched her unfold them. Sam, Jesse, and Conor crowded around. Sam was fifteen, Jesse almost twelve, and Conor nearly eight.
After a few seconds they understood what they were looking at.
“Your mother’s name was Diana Brown?” Sam asked. “And your name was Anthony Tobias Brown?”
Marion seemed annoyed. “How long have you had this?”
“A few months.”
“Why would you keep something so important from us?” she asked. I could tell she wasn’t exactly mad, more disappointed, feeling left out.
“I start thinking so many things about this that I don’t want to think anymore,” I finally told her.
“You should have let me know,” she insisted. “This is important to me, too… and your sons.”
“I’m letting you know now,” I said. “Right now.”
“Yes, you are.” She let it all drift away then by shaking her head a few times and chuckling at me.
“I came up with this concept of the formality of occurrence,” I went on hurriedly. “I can’t remember where I got it from–the formality of occurrence. I could swear it was a reference by some psychologist like Jung to something a philosopher like Wittgenstein or Alfred North Whitehead said about time and coincidence. I thought I had a book with a chapter in it called the formality of occurrence, but I can’t find a thing. I’ve looked everywhere.”
My wife just shook her head and again laughed quietly.
I remember thinking as I lay in bed that night that I wished I could chuckle at me, too. I had given a name to the malaise plaguing me: “The Formality of Occurrence.” But I didn’t really know what it meant, nor did I know where it came from. The term was like me: confused, disoriented, and without origin—somehow made up, unconnected, plucked from chaos, just four words, confounding, and yet, oddly defining.
Our original idea for a summer vacation had been to rent a cottage in Maine. Sam, the oldest, and from my first marriage, spends Augusts in Penobscot Bay with his mother at their family summer home. The rest of us thought we would all four go up and maybe spend a few days in the region learning about sailing from Sam and exploring Maine’s maritime setting. We miss Sam desperately every August. But the cottages we wanted were all reserved during the week available to us. We had waited too long to make reservations. Confronted with this obstacle, I jokingly suggested we drive from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to see a baseball game at the Pirates’ new stadium. Jesse and Conor thought that was a great idea. Then I suggested we go on from there to Missouri and visit my dad. On the way, I said, we could stop in Richmond and go to the library to see if we could find a picture of Diana Brown in an old Richmond High School yearbook. Marion liked that idea, but topped it by suggesting, “We drive to Richmond and find out what we find out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Who knows, but whatever we find is going to be waiting for us there.”
My wife had this little glint in her eye that over the years I’ve come to trust implicitly. I didn’t start out by falling in love with her when I first met her. I did notice her wide-set, sapphire colored eyes and the distinct shape of her face with her high cheekbones that made her look part Native American. What struck me most of all, though, in the beginning, was her intelligence. We met as analysts in the Philadelphia Recycling Office in the very early days of municipal recycling in this country. We were the only two people in a group of twelve who knew how to use computers. It was 1987 and I had just left my job working for a consulting engineering firm analyzing large building energy systems. Marion had just left her job as a science teacher at West Philadelphia High School.
In those pre-Internet days, it was uncommon to find computers on anyone’s desk in government offices. When I first met Marion it was my first day in the recycling office and it was the beginning of her second week. She was lugging a Radio Shack Tandy computer onto the elevator.
“Where’d you get that?” I asked, pointing at the rather hefty piece of technology in her hands.
She chuckled in a deep and provocative way that I know now is her way of saying, “the world is a funny place.”
“No one has a computer around here. I’m borrowing this so I can do word processing here at work and then I take it home to print.”
“Can that thing run Lotus?” I asked (and I have to admit I was impressed with this person. Few people in those days actually lugged computers around because they needed them wherever they were).
“No Lotus, but there’s a spreadsheet program of some kind on here. I do most of my spreadsheet stuff at home on my Apple II C, though.”
It was 1987 and I’d been dancing around the idea of buying one of Apple’s new Macintosh IIs, complete with color screen, Microsoft Office, and some weird desktop publishing software made by a company called Aldus. The Apple II C had been around for a little more than three years. It wasn’t until graduate school in 1983 that I saw my first PC box and CRT screen. I started out on Kaypros back then and had only purchased my first (and only) DOS machine the year before.
“I have an IBM-XT at home,” I finally told her. I wish I had a Mac II, but I did just get a copy of Lotus 1-2-3’s version 2.1.”
“I haven’t used Lotus much,” she said as someone else got on the elevator with us. We road down not talking in that way people who don’t know each other do – not wanting to subject strangers to their process of getting to know one another.
Over the next three weeks, Marion and I would daily enter bureaucratic skirmishes trying to get permission to purchase a PC and Lotus 1-2-3 so that we could do analysis and planning for the city’s new recycling program. I learned that her blue eyes never stopped sparkling, that she was embarrassed about the fact that she’d gone to Harvard, that her brother and oldest sister were doctors, that her other sister was a nurse practitioner, and that her father was an assistant dean of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Her mother had been a middle school math teacher and then a guidance counselor and all of her grandparents grew up in Ireland. As the only real analysis nerds in the Philadelphia Recycling Office, very quickly our job became more than full-time as we tried to figure out what it would cost for the city to provide recycling programs to 600,000 households. We had to buy trucks, recycling buckets, provide education, enter into market contracts, and figure out – somehow – what the city’s labor needs would be. By the end of the winter we were working fourteen hour days together, six days a week. It is possible to say that we fell in love over a spreadsheet, but things were far more complicated than that. I was married and my wife was going to have a baby. I was also unhappy and I didn’t know why.
“You really think we’re going to find something in Indiana?” I finally said.
“I don’t know.”
“What about going to see the Pirates?” Jesse asked.
“Well, let’s go to Pittsburgh first, then,” Marion said. “We’ll spend the weekend in Pittsburgh, then drive on to Richmond. And we’ll find out what we find out.”
“Wow,” Conor chimed. “A picture of daddy’s real mom is in a school yearbook at the library all the way out in Indiana?”
We check into the Pittsburgh Ramada Inn, and then head out onto the streets to find a place to eat, but all the restaurants are closed and there’s practically no one around. It’s a beautiful summer evening, a bit of cool coming off the rivers that converge around this old city’s center; the sky is a darkening, dusty lavender. All four of us are hungry after our long drive. Coming from Philadelphia, though, we are somewhat flummoxed by the lack of people. We wander the streets, temporarily forgetting the idea of food. We are, simply, in search of human beings.
It grows dark. We hear live music reverberating amongst the buildings, but it is impossible to locate. There are no people, but there is old, industrial-age stone and iron mixed with modern glass, polished marble, and granite. Ornate office buildings vault to the sky, shimmering in the twilight. Ancient brick and stone churches and storefronts crouch in the shadows, lit by the warm glow of light off the evening clouds. Everything is coated with a layer of dried coal talc from more than a century of steel manufacturing. We peer through blackened restaurant windows, scratching our heads. I begin to feel the day has been an omen for our quest: first the fierce tangle of cars and families on the highway, now the ghost town of Pittsburgh’s famed Golden Triangle. Our search will yield nothing but people all going their own way, then closed doors and empty, darkened rooms.
“This is a lost cause,” I say to Marion.
“Let’s go back to the hotel,” she says. “There was a bar or something that looked open just off the lobby.”
As we begin to retrace our steps, I realize I am growing irritable. I need a drink desperately. I don’t want to think about what we’re doing, what I’m doing, what I may end up doing to another person, finding her, stopping her dead in the tracks of her life and telling her what she may or may not want to hear: I’m your son. I’m forty-five. Do you remember me? What happened?
My family instinctively knows to keep their distance. They trail five to ten yards back, leaving their father and husband to his black thoughts and a growing sense of futility.
Coming back up a hill toward our hotel, we hear the live music again. At the base of the U.S. Steel Building is a mass of young business professionals drinking and cavorting with each other at Willy and Pete’s Bar. On the patio in front are a man and a woman playing electric guitars, singing Shawn Colvin’s song “Shotgun Down The Avalanche.” The woman is attractive, and though petite, very athletic looking. She has dark features: long black hair, almond skin a bit darker than mine. Her face is at once Hispanic, Asian, Jewish and mulatto. I begin to wonder, stupidly, whether she is my sister. Not, “Wouldn’t that be funny if she were my sister?” more like: “I wonder if she’s my sister.” Her voice is nothing special. There is a bit of range to it, the timber and vocal quality are pleasing enough, but my black mood, my hunger, my thirst for booze, and my simultaneous awareness of how overwrought my thought processes are, do not let me appreciate the woman’s singing. I watch the crowd swilling it up and downing hors d’oeuvres, thinking how dumb they are in their contentedness. Something keeps me from going over the edge, though. The words: “No man is an island,” pop into my head. I am not a stranger here in this empty maze of hulking architecture. Behind me is my family; in front of me is a country of people partying and trading banter, on the prowl, about to consummate any number of relationships and deeds everywhere on this Friday night. It is raining somewhere. It is perfectly cool and gentle where we are, paused in front of U.S. Steel headquarters.
“I guess we’re eating at the hotel,” Jesse says, coming up from behind me, using his best, quiet, wise eleven-year-old voice.
“I guess we are,” Marion sighs.
“I want chicken fingers,” says Conor.
We have a horrible meal at the Ruddy Duck, with slow service, bland food, over-salted meat, mushy vegetables, meager salads, and loud table neighbors with two noisy toddlers. But I do well enough at ignoring the demon thoughts lurking in my cluttered mind while I drink a beer and consume my cheap, stringy steak and a salad smothered in what is the only saving grace of the meal: a delicately flavored raspberry-lime vinaigrette.
The demons come back when we return to our room. The ventilation system doesn’t work well and there are no controls. The room is a perfect seventy-eight degrees with moderate humidity, but I want it seventy-two and I want a unit that will allow me to drive the humidity well below fifty-percent.
We go to bed, all four of us, and I lie there feeling the heat prickle my skin, thinking about the fact that I am driving to Richmond, Indiana with nothing but the name of a high school student from the 1950s.
In order to fall asleep, I count the things I want to take back in my life. There are many of them. I have cheated, lied, stolen money, and shoplifted. I’ve manipulated the lives of those I love. Most of my major decisions were made in order to please others. My ego drives what I accomplish. I am a materialist. I want desperately to be rich. I’ve done worse too, far worse. The worst thing though, I realize in the dark, is that I’ve worked so hard to appear to others as a good person, a noble, decent, gentle man with positive, progressive values, that I’m no longer sure who I really am. “You’ve worked hard,” I think, “at covering up what a shit you have become.”
I drift across a sea of sleep, bumping into myself over and over, wondering about all of my transgressions, wondering if they’re somehow related to being adopted. If you aren’t connected, if you’re untethered, isn’t it inevitable that you will be at least slightly morally off-center and selfish? I usually do the right thing in life, probably more than some, but occasionally I make mistakes. And when I do, there is nothing to face. No guilt. Nothing. I am alone and floating outside the rest of the world. I am a mistake, an alien, a lone wolf cut off from the pack. I struggle to find sleep in the incessant heat of the room and tumble in and out of guilt and self-consciousness.
There are moments in all of this, while I drift, where I understand things better. At one point in the night, I realize that loneliness might be a good thing. It is the root cause of my ability to love others. It is the source of my deep need to find, and my belief in, true love. I went through so much to discover that love, to find Marion.
That same loneliness is filled every day being around my sons. The desperation of my situation in the world has been salved by my family, but it has not been eliminated. I lie in a room on the 16th floor of the Pittsburgh Ramada Inn and I can only be cured of this desolation by overcoming my adoption, by understanding, at least in part, the formal reasons for why I have occurred.
I’ve dreamt of wolves and wild dogs my whole life. Sometimes I am in my house sitting alone at the kitchen table. There are house noises all around me, common house noises: a ticking clock, the refrigerator’s compressor, the far off sound of a vacuum sweeper, maybe I forgot to turn the water off in the sink. A wolf comes into the room. He is panting and salivating. I smell him. Death out of the dark. His eyes are ice cave blue, his fur the color of burned forest and dust. And then he’s gone. I’m afraid I will forget. I’m afraid I won’t remember he was there.
It’s sunrise, the air is moist and thick, a pack of wild dogs goes noisily through our back yard, mongrels bred of pit bulls, boxers, bull dogs, and mastiffs, some with huge, almost bald skulls, bulging eyes, vicious snarls. They breathe in unison, messengers of fear cruising through our suburban neighborhood, looking to fall on any living thing, flesh on their minds. I struggle to figure out if I’m dreaming. Our suburb is on the edge of a great, sprawling metropolis. The pack ambles through our yard, then silence. The yard is vacant. I am looking out the window, standing on my bed, wondering if what I saw was real. Sometimes you’re the wolf. Sometimes you’re the dog. Sometimes he’s just there, like in the kitchen–watching, waiting, moving through.
A single dog finally comes into the yard, unable to run with the pack, it seems too goofy and deranged to belong in the group. It is the quintessential mongrel: part Shepard, part Lab, part Beagle, part Golden Retriever. Sometimes I am that dog and sometimes he is me.
- End Chapter One -
This is a draft manuscript first chapter. I have thought a great deal about publishing this book independently. But I truly believe it needs to be traditionally published. For that I need an agent or a thoughtful, quality small publisher. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below, or please pass this on to someone in the publishing world who might be interested in reading the full manuscript. It’s a good story.Note: Some of the names of people in this story have been altered in order to respect their privacy.