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But O'Brien does have his supporters. "Some criticize Tim for being confrontational, but that is mostly a consequence of the uncomfortable truths he forces people to reckon with," says an attorney friend of O'Brien's who wished to remain anonymous. "People don't like to have their noses rubbed in their own hypocrisy or to be reminded that our standard of living rests on the exploitation of low-wage labor half a world away."
Or even over on the other side of Taft in Freedmen's Town, where you hear of a different Tim O'Brien. Lenwood Johnson smiles at mention of his name and calls him "a gentrifier, but the good kind." Seated on her front porch overlooking a notorious drug corner, septuagenarian Ola Mae Kennedy positively fawns over O'Brien.
"Tim's a nice man, I can tell you that. He's kind-hearted. He tries to help the community all he can. He tries hard, but you know when you try hard, things don't always come out right for you. But he don't give up. He's a good neighborhood worker, uh-huh. And everybody around here likes Tim."
Kennedy, who occasionally babysits O'Brien's daughter, cites the many errands O'Brien helps people run, including for Kennedy and her handicapped daughter. O'Brien says his studies are often interrupted by impromptu mercy missions, giving carless people rides and the like.
It's perhaps a good thing for all involved that O'Brien is on schedule to get his Ph.D. next spring. Everyone would win. He would have more time to spend helping people and less to stir up trouble at school. The trouble is, O'Brien might not get to enjoy being a doctor of history very long. Early this fall, he was diagnosed with stage four melanoma, and there's an 86 percent chance he won't live five more years.
"I know I'm gonna beat this," he says. "My brother tells me to think of it as a social justice campaign. And I've gotta win."
The seeds of both social activism and antiauthoritarianism were sown early in O'Brien's life. O'Brien was raised in State College, Pennsylvania, where his dad worked as the field alumni director for Penn State. O'Brien's mother, like his father, Irish-American and staunchly Catholic, was a homemaker who was deeply involved in the Catholic Church's social justice issues. When O'Brien was about seven, his mother took him to a migrant workers' camp. "I saw kids picking tomatoes, I saw shacks with single light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, and all these flies," O'Brien says. When you are seven or eight years old, that makes a big impact. And it wasn't that our mom said, 'We're white, we're middle-class and we are privileged.' She just said, 'This is the way the world is.'"
Around the same time, O'Brien was floored by the movie In the Heat of the Night — both Sidney Poitier's performance and that of Ray Charles on the title song. "I remember sitting on my couch in my pajamas, and watching that and thinking, 'Wow. What a fucked-up world we live in.' And that music got to me too." In fact, O'Brien credits his love of black music with setting him on the path to becoming a scholar of African-American studies.
O'Brien's father, a former Navy man, was an authoritarian, and O'Brien started getting in trouble in high school, which he didn't care for. "Where I was from, it was all just hillbillies, jocks and heads," O'Brien remembers. "Fuck that high school scene."
One night he came home late from a high school basketball game and there was a police car in the driveway. There had been a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood, and the cops had come by to ask O'Brien's dad for consent to search his son's room. He gave it, and while they didn't find any swag, they did find O'Brien's rolling papers and bongs. Soon enough, after a final dispute with his dad, O'Brien had moved out. Before he was 18, he was attending an alternative high school and had his own apartment and job as a dishwasher.
After getting the boot from his school for missing a mandatory meeting, O'Brien cast his lot in with a cousin from Cleveland, a former factory worker who punched his ticket off the assembly line by purchasing a Kemah shrimp boat. O'Brien hired on as a deckhand and moved south, picking up a GED somewhere along the way. After another stint as an industrial painter in the Ship Channel area, O'Brien resumed his academic career, first at Southwest Texas State and later at Penn State, where, by then well into his thirties, he acquired an undergrad degree in economics in 1995.
Three years later he was back in Houston and at a loose end, so he signed on as an English teacher in Korea. While there he met and fell in love with Kyong Mi, a Korean and fellow English teacher. "I didn't have a problem with Korean culture, other than me being an ugly American and trying to take my American values there." It was also there that he first started having trouble with his skin. He remembers getting a "spot" excised from his back while there, and warmly recalls that the whole procedure cost about ten dollars plus a buck-fifty for his follow-up prescription.