by James Penha

I turned seventeen during freshman year of college. My youth, apparent on my whisker-free face, provoked embarrassments: I couldn’t barhop with classmates. I had no driver’s license. When, at drama club dress rehearsal for Twelfth Night, the director ordered us men in tights to wear dancer’s belts, I asked, “What’s a dancer’s belt?”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You don’t need one.”

But in many ways, this Catholic, middle-class, white, conservative school did fit me. This was ’64, and I was for Goldwater ‘cause LBJ bloated government but had no appetite to save Vietnam.

In November, ABC recruited students in our honors program for Election Night in Manhattan. Our job was to answer phones and enter received statistics on IBM cards for a computer that would project a winner.

I shared a phone with Hudson, one of few black students on campus. I recognized him from classes and from drama. He played Malvolio in Twelfth Night, and he did need a dancer’s belt. That night, we talked and laughed about the play and cast, sometimes missing the ringing of the phone. Luckily for ABC, the election wasn’t close. Hudson offered to buy us burgers at a diner because his man had won. “I don’t know how you can be Republican!” he said, as he grabbed one of the complimentary pickles potted at our table. “It’s no party for people like us.”

I placed my hand atop Hudson’s to contrast our hues. “Us?” I joked. “You mean actors?”

Hudson pushed the pickle into his mouth, looked around the restaurant as he chewed and swallowed and moved around to my side of the booth where he kissed me and repeated, “Us.”

It wasn’t long before I was marching against LBJ’s escalation in Vietnam, rooting for RFK to run in ’68, and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

PHOTO: The author at 16—going on 17—doing his Little Tramp on stage.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and in poetry. His essay“It’s Been a Long Time Coming” was featured in The New York Times “Modern Love” column in April 2016. He edits TheNewVerse.News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Visit him on Twitter @JamesPenha.