DON’T CALL ME DOCTOR
I see my Ph.D. as a means to an end, but never an end in itself. I never starting teaching at the college level full-time until I was 43. Until then I taught classes here and there, but I could not give up the day job. Before I started teaching full-time I was a specialist, specializing in any job that required a size two hat, size eighteen shirt. That was OK because I could always find a job with the description “strong back and a weak mind”, at least ever since I started working at sixteen. It never paid much above minimum, there are a lot of “strong backs and weak minds”. I was always able to find enough to go to bed in a dry warm place with something in my belly. Well the last part is a slight exaggeration, after I was 25 I was better at that, anyway.
I worked as a janitor about eight of those twenty-six years between the ages of 16 and 43. The rest of the time I fed the machine. Within the mind deadening hum, I kept pace with that master, the machine, hands and arms moving with the same motions until my back and legs screamed in protest and then just went numb. With each speed-up the machine went even faster, when I could meet the speed of the machine (“work on your speed” were the only words heard over the cry of the machine). Caught in the vibration of the floor, the smell of oiled moving parts, the song that never ended until all sounds sounded the same, and the mindless movement of body parts that danced with the machine, my mind went dead inside my skull. At the end of the shift my whole body hummed with the sound of the machine, everything was dead, my body, my mind, my soul.
The only way to regain life was to shock my system back to life. I could revive my body through physical delights, or I could resurrect my mind. I chose my mind through radical philosophy and equally radical political-economy, and history. If I could teach, this all might make sense. To talk to cynics in the break room or to talk to cynics in the classroom, either as a student or as a teacher, I could fight the revolution. At 28 I went to college to talk revolution to all who would listen. College was always a means to an end, but not the end itself.
This seemed better than the old days when I was a street person. When I met China White, she took me to places I never heard of before. Whoever made love to the Madame lost their freedom and their soul. The lady lies when she claims to take your pain away, she can only take away your hope. When she wraps her white legs around you this world is no longer yours. Ask Georgia, Stephanie, Joey, Gene, Jim, Bob, Billy, Rodney, Dead Man, Homer, Snow White, Bird, Crow, Coyote, Preacher, Stick, and Yellow Mary. They could not run from China White and they are no more except sometimes in my dreams there we still laugh together. With that bippy and white powder you jack-off in that main-line to keep those rushes comin’ four, five ,six. She lies when she says “I will keep the world away”, the pain you ran from only runs with you. No, I am not a recovering junky. I am clean by choice, clean forever. Feurbach was right, there is no divine hero to save you, you must save yourself. Sartre was right, life flicks you a lot of shit and that happens no matter what, but what you do with that shit you are always free to choose. When you put that needle in your arm you make a choice. To put it down forever is also a choice, and once that choice is made it is done until the end of time.
Before I was 25 I didn’t always find that dry warm place to sleep, and sometimes I didn’t have something in my belly at the end of the day or shelter from the storm. I mostly could find work however. If I showed up on the highway early in the morning the rich women would drive me to their homes. Pulled weeds, watered their lawns, cleaned out their garages, their basements. Work came easy in most towns once they knew you were there. The pay was always the same, a meal and spare change. We lived where we could until the police chased us out. Street people are like that, you know. In the hills behind the Mormon Church on S. Grant, in the condemned warehouse a block from Safeways, under the highway bridge on Burnside, down by the river outside of town by the old barracks, we found shelter where we could. In the winter we kept warm by building a fire on an area we kept cleared from snow, heating rocks until they turned red and white, pour on some icy water and the heat goes inside. With a coal shovel we stole we put the big rocks in our lean-to to keep us warm all night. Fire was always a fear. I am glad I lived the life. I saw America from the bottom up and the images will always be a part of what I am.
The truth is, you cannot be a revolutionary without a mind and you have to be clean to have one of those things. When you are so down you are hanging on to the ground to keep from falling you are a threat to no power structure, because you have no name. At 25 I quit all my dirty little habits: booze and downers, LSD, junk; quit them all except coffee and education. I dreamed of being a professor, because without a change of view there would be no change in the way the poor were integrated into the hope of a tomorrow without poverty for anyone. I was 30 when I got a BS degree and my education never interfered with my education too much. It was an expensive habit that seemed to lead nowhere. I was 35 when I got an MS degree, and still my education never interfered with my education too much. About half the people I worked with had a high-school education and half didn’t; it all paid the same. I always had to do a forty hour work week to pay for this damn habit. I was 48 when I got a Ph.D. By then I had been teaching for five years.
I see my Ph.D. as a means to an end, and never an end in itself. I know I am as good as any Ph.D., yet hardly a week goes by when some Ph.D. doesn’t hurt my feelings, because we both know I am an outsider looking in. I do not see the academy as a end in itself, but a vehicle for changing the larger society. I still am a working class laborer with a degree, a street person gone to school. I want to prepare students for real democracy. I want people to see the deeper connections between any situation and the larger global trends, each individual with the subterranean historical structures that mold us all. What I teach is how to question our most sacred beliefs; not to understand why always leads to intolerance and intolerance negates the soul of the bigot, as well as harms the innocent. I teach we are lucky to live in a world of christians, jews, atheists, freethinkers, muslims, buddhists, animists, communists, anarchists, socialists, democrats and, in very small doses, even Republicans.
Tolerance comes first, then acceptance, then celebration. I will study for the rest of my life reservation and urban Indians, American radicals, Africans, unionized industrial blue collar Workers, service sector Employees, public sector Employees, street hustlers in the informal economy, and Workers who work off the books. Studying people with less than a college education, not as a source of data, but as source of insight, wisdom and inspiration. My orientation is not academia or even the university, but outward. I am a fraud and proud of it; I work on stolen ground and would have it no other way.
Michael Joseph Francisconi