In a debate with an unknown person at the www.penamerica.blogspot.com blog, I was characterized as a smelly bum. This is the rationale for ignoring my point-by-point criticisms of the PEN organization. Unfair, of course, and revealing of the literary establishment mindset. Then again. . . .
This morning on the way to a job, I stopped at a Starbucks for a cup of hot tea. As I was giving my order, what could only be described as a smelly bum walked in-- carrying a large blanket-- and took a seat at a table. The apparent manager told him right away that he'd have to buy a coffee or leave. She didn't say, "Can I get you anything?" first. The air of hostility toward the man, from the staff and customers, was palpable.
The homeless man looked at her, not saying anything, as she went on with her work. It occurred to me that the man wasn't playing by the rules. What's more, his very presence in the shop, looking as he did, was a violation of the rules. Rightly or wrongly, the bourgeois territory is very regulated-- regulated not by any posted list of what not to do, but by the rigid, trained personalities of the staff and customers. It just wasn't done. THEY had to follow the unspoken rules of behavior and protocol, and so should the bum.
I realized that to well-trained PEN people I must indeed appear to be a "smelly bum," as what I do-- my questions, my probings into the nature of their world-- is breaking the rules. Even the most analytical of literary critics, Sven Birkerts or James Wood, would never dare glance at the workings of the literary machine itself. They've been trained not to. If they ever did, it would be in roundabout fashion, in a way which could never expose or offend anyone. They're the well-dressed customers in a coffeeshop, standing in line, waiting their turn, not speaking too loudly, or on the other hand not forgetting to speak at all; always pulling out in timely fashion their credit cards or Starbucks cards and having the proper "Spanish Mocha Rasperry Latte" word ready to be produced on cue.
I didn't wait around to see how the situation with the homeless man resolved itself. I had to get to work.