An excerpt from The One You Get, winner of the 2016 Dzanc Books Nonfiction Prize
Great Grandpa Neves is directing traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, naked. By 1930, he’s been in California long enough to perform the signals on instinct: palm out front for “stop,” a backward wave for “move along.” He mumbles the Portuguese to himself, “Pare. Siga em frente.” He hasn’t been here so long to forget how the world sounds in words with soft edges.
“What’s the matter with you, mister? Get out of the way. Jesus Christ, he’s cracked.”
From a distance, the Golden Gate Bridge shines red like giant candy, but now that he’s here, it’s hard to see that. The wind whoops so hard he has to fight just to stay in one place. With each foot braced on a plank, he envisions a moving snapshot of his naked body floating, buoyed by the wind, threatening with every dip to zoom straight down and gulp the Bay until it floods his lungs and strangles him for a gasping seven minutes before he finally deflates.
He came to get the cars off, and he’s going to do it. They’re an eyesore. They make the bridge look like it’s crawling with black ants. When he looks at the bridge, which he does hundreds of times a day, he feels the ants under his skin. These red steel beams, so majestic from afar, turn out to be the limbs of a giant scorpion surveying its ant prey.
"Run the sonofabitch over." The wind carries the driver's shouts. Stop, he commands. Move along. If he can just let the wind take him, if he can just let himself float, the world will fade white and disappear. Stop. Move along. Pare. Siga em frente.
The Golden Gate Bridge story is the centerpiece of my family’s lore. Our blood flows from Ralph’s schizophrenic dad right through each and every one of us. We’re obsessed with this blood, and by blood, we mean genes. It could be any one of us up there on that bridge. Don’t forget it.
Port-a-ghee blood. There’s a problem with our blood, and it affects our brains. This is our family mantra. My mom and her brothers are only half Portuguese, but the Port-a-ghee blood cancels out other strains.
This blood is the reason Ralph ended up in an orphanage, with nuns. Hell, it’s probably why he ended up a famous jockey, the Portuguese Pepper Pot. Even the press got the point: the Portuguese was the blood, and the Pepper was the problem. Ralph’s little body is the Pepper Pot. The rest of us are the Petri dishes into which the stew was served, in variable portions.
I spent a lot of my childhood asking these questions, and I spend a lot of my adulthood trying to read and write, think, and talk my way to some answers. I became fascinated with the fact of consciousness early on. We’re aware of our own existence and at least a good chunk of our experience and our personal history. But where does this awareness come from? How does it work? I’m fascinated with these questions. I write about them. I teach college courses about them, leading students through fourteen weeks of literary, philosophical, and scientific attempts to find answers. None of these attempts settle the matter.
A human life is a product of biology and culture, the internal and the external milieus collaborating. Two people unknown to the future human have sex; an embryo develops into a fetus and, if all goes well, a baby is born, composed of cells patched together from genetic blueprints laced through the viscera of the parents’ bodies. These parents, themselves accidents of biology and culture, figure out what to do with their baby—how to raise it (or not raise it), where it will live, what and how it will learn. Before long, the rest of the world intervenes, steering the parents’ influence in unexpected directions.
The many cumulative acts of others shape what it’s possible to do, to know, and to be. You have to take care of it, they say. You’re not ready. For Godssake, then you have to get married. You have to grow up. You have to take care of yourself. You have to take care of this baby.
Protect your internal milieu, they’re saying. Find homeostasis. Be sensible about your external milieu. But the internal milieu has a way of interfering with reasonable decisions, with the will of the organism. My mother asserted herself, kept the baby. My parents did the sensible thing. They got married. They tried to turn an accident into a choice. But those Godforsaken milieus—as Nanny would have called them, in the language of her Scottish Catholic parents—have a way of turning choices back into accidents.