When I was in sixth grade, I got in trouble for starting a business at school. It was 1986 and friendship bracelets were a BIG THING. It felt like everyone had those braids of thread tied around their wrists and ankles, gifts from friends or secret loves. Everyone but me. Feeling left out, I stole some of my mother’s thread and tried to make my own, but the raveling mess was a metonym for my essentially friendless state. That I was friendless was largely my fault. The year before I’d stopped hanging out with my best friend because a girl I had a crush on didn’t like him. Of course, she didn’t like me either, so my plan backfired.
One day during recess, I watched girls in the shadow of the school, their backs against the windowless brick wall, making the bracelets—and I had an idea. I told them that if they would make me some bracelets, I would sell them to people and split the money with them. They’d been buying embroidery floss and giving bracelets away to people they liked, but faced with the possibility of having some money for gum and Little Debbies, they agreed. Realizing that I wasn’t popular enough to convince anyone to buy something that had previously been free, I approached two of the most well-liked boys in the class and told them that if they talked people into buying the new bracelets, I’d split the money with them. My business model was a success and after a few days I could afford to pay a much taller classmate to be my bodyguard. The problem arose when everyone realized that I was making most of the money and was doing none of the work. My bodyguard turned on me, took my money, called me a few pointed names, and just like that, I was on the outside again. To make matters worse, later in the day, our teacher pulled me into the hall and tell me that selling things on school grounds was against school policy and that she was going to have to write me up. I tried to explain to her that she should be proud of how smart I was. This argument did not gain traction.
…his cheerless patterned sweater of black diamonds…
While I was an awkward child and far from the most popular boy in my class, I was well aware that I was also nowhere near the bottom. While it felt like everyone had friendship bracelets but me, it was only because I didn’t notice those in my class less fortunate than I. One of those on the bottom of the school social pyramid is J R. A true social outcast: poor and unkempt and unpopular. His hair sticks out at rough angles, uncombed. He wears the same sweater on consecutive days. His classmates barely seem to know his name.
In Edward Bast’s Ring, J R is Alberich, the dwarf who steals the Rheingold from the Rheinmaidens. In the opera, Alberich is an outcast as well, mocked by the Rheinmaidens that he has professed his love to. Like Alberich, J R is spurned by his classmates. The girl playing Wotan refers to him dismissively as “that boy J R” and says that “[h]e’s already littler than us.” Wotan chides him for not having a costume like the rest of the class, but we can see that he probably doesn’t have a costume because he can’t afford one. In just a few lines, J R’s social position is clearly marked: poor, small, unpopular. Spurned like Alberich, J R swoops in, rejects the love of others, and steals away with the class’s bag of Rheingold.
The power of money radiates through the ages of myth and through the quotidian chatter of children. While it appears comic to us to hear the teachers and businessmen attempting to talk to the students about stocks and corporations, money is just as much at the core of their world. Were J R the handsome son of a wealthy family, his lot would be different and the Rheinmaidens would be singing to him.
–I just mean, maybe we can use each other sometime…okay?
J R is not totally alone in the world, but he has turned every relationship into an exchange. His only friendship, with Major Hyde’s son, is based solely on trading the catalogs and free offers that will be the basis for his empire. J R’s real companionship comes from the offers and not the Hyde boy. It is, after all, the advertisements that address J R as “Dear Friend.”
When he walks home with Edward Bast on the night before the trip to Manhattan, rather than have a moment of teacher/student bonding, J R exploits the walk as an opportunity to network, offering Edward inside information about the zoning near his family’s home. The next day, J R walks home with Edward again and tries to get money out of him, calling as Edward runs away: –didn’t I tell you we could maybe use each other?
During the class trip to Wall Street, J R’s voice lurks behind the noise, one of the few that asks questions. J R is hoping for an actual answer, rather than just waiting his turn to talk. J R takes every piece of information he can get his hands on and uses them as the fundamental building blocks of his new self that he is creating.
—-It means a very poor person and and, yes and we don’t like to think about poor people, no…
We all remember what middle school was like: If you weren’t someone, you were no one. J R is no one, cast out from his classmates. He is just a voice in the void. Of course, everyone is just a voice in J R, but it is his novel. Just as he has been reduced by his classmates, he has reduced everyone else to a tapestry of voices and information for him to pick through.
Like I did twelve years later, J R uses money and business to craft a new identity. While I was only seeking entry into the middle school social market, J R, having renounced love, is seeking something higher, something that reaches beyond the confines of the playground. In truth, no matter how much of an outcast I felt like at the time, I was not J R. I had friends and family, and I never had to wear the same shirt to school two days in a row. My middle-school scheme was never about money—it was about crafting something to bond me to my classmates; the fact that I could get the business up and running speaks to how non-outside I was. And my fall just became a funny story I could tell, a different kind of social capital that I could use to work my way into social circles. If I had been J R, no one would have even heard me asking about the friendship bracelets. If I had been J R, I wouldn’t have cared. I would have renounced it all and disappeared with the Rheingold.