Sunday, December 18, 2005

Memories of Youth's Idyll, Part II

(Second in a series begun here)

Who were my allies in this insurgency?
There is a type of humor; bland, base, darkly vulgar, which is common among white males of the criminal subculture. These are people who are often referred to as white trash. They usually have done some time in prison; their time outside of an institution is often more reprieve than release, and their return is, usually, inevitable. There comes with it an accent and inflection that transcend region. Incorporating black slang and rhythm unselfconsciously, filtered through ineradicable residue of deep seated lumpen-proletariat origins, it is the sound of the penitentiary. This posture is completed by a certain look, as unmistakable and inimitable as the foul effects of poor hygiene and diet which mark someone long homeless. This look is where we get the phrase slack-jawed from, and the phrase is remarkably apt. Someone somewhere must have a theory explaining the tendency of the lower jaw to hang slack from the face of the pathologically delinquent.
The attitude these traits garnish is one of unfocused defiance. This defiance is not political though it resists the rule of law. It is an unconscious recognition of one's lack of morality, one's base nature, one's narcissism. It mocks conventional morality. It is the socialization that takes place outside of the mainstream, in the wretched outback of poverty and ignorance, akin to that of the geographically remote such as hillbillies, though it flourishes in our midst.
There is another, closely related type of humor: mirthless, taunting, disturbingly deprecatory of everything, which is common to the vato, the Chicano gang banger. It is less humor than a brutality of manners, seeking to strangle any and all that is remotely foreign to the narrow conceptions of the barrio. This is the humor of the cholo, and it is little more than a gob of spit in the face of the culture and manners of the gavacho, or Caucasian.
Strangely, you would find these types, the white trash and the vato, mingling with one another on the streets of my old neighborhood, striking up alliances and even friendships as they found common criminal cause. It wasn't uncommon to find a disheveled white punk with "White Power" tattoos partnered up with a Mexican gang banger in chinos and plain white undershirt. What they had in common was a more or less complete lack of amenability to society. Learning was not only undervalued; it was discouraged and denigrated as, depending on one's particular point of view, selling out or as effete. Physical bravery and audacity were valued above all else with the approving label, crazy, as in, "you don't want to mess with him, he's crazy." The cholos would claim their superiority in their graffitti taunts with the ubiquitous term mas loco; as in lil' Boxer, Varrio Neighborhood, 13, mas loco. (The lil' abbreviation meant little and was normally given to a junior gang member who took up a name already claimed by a veterano, or simply to a very young or small member. There was a time when I was, jokingly, called lil' Dennis because of my small stature, and before that lil' Groucho because of an entirely unfair comparison to Groucho Marx that was the result of my getting an unfashionably short haircut one summer.)
Most of us who would drift into this subculture would eventually find our way out. Some, however, were destined to die in it, and usually at a very young age. These were marked early on, and it was plainly evident that they weren't going to settle down to a quiet life. They would end up incarcerated or dead by violence or drug addiction well before middle age calmed them.

I had a friend growing up who was as decent and honorable as anyone I knew up to that point in my life. He and his father were movie buffs of a sort. It seemed every weekend they went to see something (this was long before the VCR). His old man was a legendary crank; big, gruff, and scary. There were stories, unverified but believable: once when the mother of one of his kid's friends made a pretext of coming to the door to borrow a cup of sugar (this sort of thing was still possible in those days) in hopes of striking up a conversation he wordlessly shut the door in her face; he had once fired off a high powered handgun at some cats that were digging around in his garbage, cutting one in half. His love of film was incongruous in light of this image. Every Monday at school I would listen with keen interest and envy as my friend would describe that weekend's film. Fatherless myself, it never occurred to me to envy the relationship he had with his father, but now I realize it was a remarkable bond, one that most of us didn't have with our parents.
There were three sons in the family, my friend being the youngest. I would say they were as different as night and day but I need a third pole. They were night, day, and twilight. There was a classic middle son who was cowardly and thoroughly unprincipled. He was a would-be con man, always running some kind of second rate scam, and an inveterate thief. As a juvenile delinquent I would spend time hanging around with him later. I suspect he is dead now, as his need to involve himself in every manner of criminal activity combined with a complete lack of physical bravery and toughness did not bode well. There was always an air of the amateur about him. He was aspiring to things he had no business with, but it was obvious that a normal life involving work and family would never be possible for him. It was a depressing inevitability that I recognize now in retrospect. The oldest son I didn't know well. He was in jail more often than not. The offenses were serious, armed robbery and the like. He was thoroughly criminal. He had survived a stabbing that should have killed him, and lifting his shirt could show you a collection of train track scars that proved it. It happened in a bar fight and apparently his attacker did not so much stab as slash him, deeply. He had been hastily stitched back together and the welt like, cross hatched scars had a Frankenstein look to them. His older sister, unintelligent and prone to superstition, conjectured that he had been spared because he was to father a child somewhere down the line who would one day achieve something great. Hilariously, there was no question that there was no direct benefit to humanity in his survival. The last time I saw him he was headed back to prison on a parole violation. Its okay, he said, he would be rejoining his friends. It is his image I opened this post with.

The youngest and the oldest brother were as different as night and day, and the middle brother was somewhere in the nether region in between, idolizing the oldest and sadly lacking the character of the youngest. Knowing them is one of the reasons I would eventually fall on the nature side of the nature/nurture debate, in spite of a lifetime of being taught the opposite. It remains for me, like so many other experiences in my life, irrefutable evidence, a rude real life rejoinder for the misty sentiment of the blank slate thesis.

Love your children, support them, make them feel worthy and you have done well. But know that nature's torments aren't limited to disaster and disease. Sometimes the vileness she hurls at us comes in the form of a helpless infant. Sometimes that precious child is a foul bud which reveals itself gradually, in stages. The human penchant for cruelty doesn't find a neat, flat level as water in a vessel but pools up in the various recesses of our complex and uneven human nature, sometimes finding a deep pocket in the heart of a deviant.

Part III


Anonymous said...

First of all: beautiful post. Look forward to reading the rest. But I have to quarrel with your taking the differences between the three brothers as evidence that nature is more important than nurture. Both nature and nurture are all-important. How would those brothers have ended up if they had the exact same genetic makeup, but were born into a wealthy, two-parent, well-educated, successful suburban household? If genetics is everything, then they would have ended up exactly the same way, correct? Do you really believe that?


Dennis Dale said...

Thanks. I suppose in the heat of transposing my overblown prose I can sound a bit too strident. I'm working on that. I don't suggest that nature is destiny. I believe in free will. I do think that nature is the greater determinant; in fact I suspect if and when we come to a complete understanding of how much greater we might be shocked.
I don't pretend to have any expertise on this, but I believe that we all too often tend to discount the most important data there is: personal experience.

The three brothers obviously didn't have the same experience growing up. The youngest may have enjoyed a certain shielding from the father's (or mother's) overarching influence.

The scenario you offer is interesting. You may be aware of the famous twins studies, where identical twins raised indepently were studied and showed remarkable similarities in the face of very different upbringings.

In my life I've gone from faith in the blank slate notion, to the belief that the two determinants were so interwoven that qualifying their respective realms of influence was impossible, to a somewhat resigned acceptance of nature as an overpowering determinant of personality. That doesn't mean that the lesser role of nurture can't sometimes be the deciding factor in an individual's circumstances. Few would argue that extreme conditions imposed on a child don't shape his character.

Looking back at what I've written I'm struck by how much the geography of my old neighborhood affects my impressions in retrospect. Perhaps it too plays its role. I know I carry that place around with me wherever I go. I sometimes wonder if early life overshadows everything else in the end. That might say something about the influence of our upbringing or of early impressions. I hope to understand it all better someday.

Anonymous said...

An issue with the twin studies is that there is rarely extreme variance in environment. Social workers make an effort to place kids in similar settings, especially when they are not being given up just at birth. Especially back in the 50s and 60s when most of the kids in those studies were placed, the variance was mostly lower-middle-class compared to upper-middle-class.

I've known too many rich kids who acted out, took some drugs, and then "came to" and plugged in family connections sometime in their early 20s to establish a secure lifestyle for themselves. Plus their background did a good job of shielding them from going to juvie or jail due to youthful misadventures. Institutionalization changes people. How do you think GW Bush would have ended up if he was born into your neighborhood?


Dennis Dale said...

Good point. I think we see how the support system of affluence saves some young people and how poverty and fatherlessness nearly dooms others.
I think GW born into a normal middle class home would have ended up managing a store, he also seems a likely high school principal. But, taking into account his struggles with alcohol, if he was fatherless and poor, exposed to all manner of drugs early on? Things could have taken a tragic turn for him early on, indeed.
But the essential character and intelligence of the man? This is the indelible imprint in all of us.
GW Bush never should have been elected president and he never would have made it there if not for his name; but the second Bush presidency says more about inherent problems with modern American democracy than it does about affluence affecting character.
Good points, MQ, again.

Marilyn Livote said...

Dennis, enjoying joining you in the inner sanctum of your mind - and congratulate you on your courage to be so revealing. Regarding nature vs. nurture, " the Biology of Belief" by Bruce Lipton, PhD., has much to say on the subject, including what quantum physics (for more on this, I highly recommend viewing the DVD "What the bleep do we know?") is contributing to the debate. From the book cover, "The implications of this research radically changes our understanding of life. It shows that genes and DNA do not control our biology; that instead DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, including the energetic messages emanating from our positive and negative thoughts." From page 29, "....truly understand the New Biology, we will no longer fractiously debate te role of nurture and nature, because we will realize that the fully concious mind trumps both nature and nurture."
Keep it coming, stimulating thinking in others is one of the most valuable contributions any of us will ever make. And, the sharing of ones self is always a gift to others as it furthers our understanding of what it means to be human. Thanks, Marilyn L.

Anonymous said...

I am loving these posts! its so deep and hard-hitting, what a slice of life. You sure come from a diff background than I do. Lots of novel insight here.