Growing up in the South Bronx, where I was constantly reminded (or admonished depending on your point of view) that I needed to learn to cook in order to be a good wife in the future, I became a feminist as a point of rebellion. But I was not a march-in-the-streets burn-your-bra kind of feminist. I appreciate the girly options that are available. I like dresses. I love high heels. I love handbags, hats and jewelry. I don’t wear makeup though and I don’t cook. Never really learned. I am a New Yorker, after all, and thus I know how to order out really well. Could explain why my son loves his play kitchen and actually bakes real cupcakes–kids come out the opposite of their parents, right? Throughout my life I have loved pop culture and the medium of film. It was through television that I learned there were other norms out there–other ways of being besides what existed in the confines of the 10 block radius that was my South Bronx neighborhood. There are many people who never leave their 10-block radius and are perfectly happy staying within these confines. I was not.
When I went to college and decided to take film classes I was overjoyed at my discovery of the film noir genre. Sometimes I feel like all of life is a film noir movie. Certainly, for many of the actors in that genre their lives ended up with bits of tragedy, drama and intrigue. Film noir movies are those that visually and stylistically resemble German expressionist cinematography with the heavy use of silhouettes and shadows. The shadows are meant to convey the ambiguous nature of the protagonists’ motivations which are often steeped in cynicism, mired in incomplete truths, and saturated with sexual tension. There is usually a mystery or crime to solve and therefor a detective is often a main character (is Scooby-Doo technically film noir?). A classic film noir, that many have heard of even nowadays, is The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston. One of the best things about film noirs are the “Macguffins”, essentially objects that serve as storytelling devices that oftentimes prove to be irrelevant. The Maltese Falcon itself was just such a Macguffin. Or have you seen the recent film by Scorcese called Hugo? The little boy was focused on reacquiring a notebook that had once belonged to his dead dad. The notebook eventually proved to be relatively irrelevant but it served to motivate the boy and move the plot forward. In the movie Psycho, the Macguffin that propels the plot is the stolen $40,000 from the realtor’s office.
So, Macguffins are useless, but at times, cool plot devices. You know what? We each have one. In our own life narratives we have each embedded our own Macguffin. Yes, that sentence is extremely strange. Think about this. How do you introduce yourself at a party? What do you put in your professional biosketch? When you lie down at night and recount key parts of your life, or relive key moments, what are they? Do any of these contain a Macguffin?
Growing up I was a champion storyteller. I won books and accolades for being able to get up in front of a group of people and tell a story. Tell a story convincingly and creatively. I think when you grow up in the South Bronx with a desire to see the world, you develop a life narrative that you can sell to whoever will listen and whoever will extend their arm to help lift you up from poverty. Storytelling and life narration has become second nature to me and my life story changes slightly depending on the audience. But the key elements are there: poverty, family, resilience, academics, hard work and mentorship. Somewhere along the way I learned to read people and understand what narrative elements they want to hear from me. Along the way, I also developed my own series of Macguffins.
Back in junior year of high school, I was at boarding school. Poor, but happy, even surrounded by such great wealth. My mother would send me whatever she could every few weeks so that I could go get frappes at the Friendly’s in town or so that I could order pizza and stay up all night studying. I did manage to supplement my “income” by becoming the person that kept others awake. Perhaps because I was from the Bronx and was seen as loud or just because I could use the extra bucks, people turned to me to do whatever I needed to in order to keep them up. See, for some students, anything less than an “A” was cause for a long run up the bell tower followed by a short drop down. So, they needed to stay up at whatever cost. Junior year was known as being especially hard and as the time that suicide attempts peaked. That junior year history class was a killer (bad choice of words?). But I was doing well. Flourishing, actually. In order to keep people up all night, I would tell them random stories about growing up in the South Bronx. I got such delight in seeing their eyes grow wide. Having lived next to a crack house sure gave me plenty of stories to share. It was odd that it became part of my narrative in that well-to-do context.
I decided to apply for a year abroad program so that I could spend my senior year of high school in Europe. Doesn’t get much better than that. As I prepared my school-year abroad application, my mother wired me $80 for an Amtrak ticket back down to New York for October break. She repeatedly warned me to not lose it. I kept saying responding incredulously “why would I lose it?” So, that morning while everyone was boarding buses to get to the city and from there head home (wherever that was), I had an errand to run and had my little beige cloth wallet that contained the $80 dollars. As I cut my way across the lawn in the quad (knowing I was not supposed to, if I got caught I would be reprimanded) I felt into my coat pocket and the wallet was not there. I checked and rechecked. I retraced y steps, or so I thought, through the quad. I knelt on the grass and felt around. Nothing. No wallet. I was in absolute despair. How would I get home? How could I tell my mother? I had let her down. I had never let her down before. I was an overachiever. Failing was not in my DNA. I kept searching for that beige wallet for over an hour to no avail. Eventually the lawnmower guy came up to me and asked me what was wrong? I explained the situation of my lost beige wallet and he took me to an office on campus that I had never gone to before. I don’t remember the administrator’s name. I wish I did, I really do. But he was kind-hearted and gave me $80 with the promise that I would repay him. I felt such a sense of relief, but also shame. I took the money, went into the city and got on Amtrak and made my way home to my mommy. I never told her about that lost beige wallet. I eventually repaid the administrator that took pity on me.
While on October break, I worked on my school abroad application. I was even more determined to get into the program. I couldn’t suffer another failure. After October break, I went back to the spot in the quad where I thought I lost that wallet. I went back there everyday. I obsessed with finding it for it tore at my heart. How could I have lost something that my mom had worked so hard to get me? One day, I sat on the quad –the exact spot where I lost my beige wallet-and thought about what the future would bring. I was going to live in Spain for a year as my application had been successful. How far I had come and how far I was going? I wasn’t going to be the same little girl ever again. Living in Spain was wondrous, but a shock to the system. While I had been in a protected state at boarding school, where administrators would take pity on me because I was a poor Latina, in Spain I was a completely foreign entity to them. Who was this American that wasn’t white? I had even less money in Spain than I did in boarding school in the United States. So, I took on tutoring jobs where I taught English to twin 7 year old brats. It was basically babysitting. I walked to and from school so I managed to save up my weekly transportation money. My mom never knew about my financial difficulties. Why would I bother her with that? Years, later, my baby boy (well, toddler, but always my baby) has more in his savings account than the average American, and I’m determined that he’ll never have to scratch for every penny like I did.
Have you ever seen the movie “Better off Dead”? That first hour was just pure black humor. Loved it. Throughout the movie, there is a bratty newspaper boy on a bicycle that haunts the protagonist trying to get the $2.00 he is owed for the newspaper delivery. He shows up everywhere, demanding “I want my $2.” Can’t blame him for he had a job to do. Can’t blame the protagonist either for running from him, he had a broken heart to mend while he failed at numerous silly attempts to kill himself. The boy on the bike was the movie’s Macguffin. Nothing really came of it but it sure propelled the plot to even darker, sillier times. What would one do for $2?
Truth is, we are all after something and there is always something that challenges us in that pursuit. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have to overcome. But sometimes that which motivates our quest is in itself not that important. It is who we are at the end that is important. I was never able to solve the mystery of my lost beige wallet–my very own Maltese Falcon. Those were my dark days, in which I was shadowed by money worries and feelings of having failed. But now, whenever I find a $20 I left in my winter coat pocket, I am exuberantly overjoyed. Perhaps, even a bit irrationally exuberant. In what has been called the only “stoner” noir film The Big Lebowski, protagonist Jeff Lebowski’s stolen rug that “really tied the room together” is yet another Macguffin, and in a classic statement of life narrative he says, “Let me explain something to you. Um, I am not ‘Mr. Lebowski’. You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. Now that is succinct self-definition. Maybe I’ll tell people to refer to me as “Her Dudeness”. Except in Puerto Rico. Maybe there I’ll be “La Duderina”.