I’m going to begin by saying I’m sorry. Please read on…
I was driving home, following a Santa Ana policeman. His window was down and his arm was out, drumming the door side. He withdrew it momentarily and brought it back out again with some sort of dark plastic wrapper crumpled up in his palm, the fringe of which flapped along at 40 mph. He drummed once. Twice. And then let it go.
Car number 841.
Another guy, Mister Regular Citizen Joe, pulled into a parking space at the complex where my office is. He threw open the car door, getting out. Taking one last long swig of his beverage, he tossed the 32 oz. striped white cup on top of the green hedge in the planter and scooted off to work as he must have been late, or close to it.
And why am I writing about this? These were big boys. Grown, I mean. Men in control of who they are and what they are doing, moment to moment, day to day. Aspiring, focused, driven.
In theory, anyway. Just not in regards to the ‘where’ and the ‘with’ components of community: the community where they live and work and play. With others. With partners and with streets and with parks and with civic…um, pride?
Proud to be an honor student. Proud to be a chef. An American. A Tanzanian. A husband. A mother. Proud to be a thief. A soldier. Transgender. A scientist. A free-thinker. A fascist. A skinhead. An overeater. An overachiever. Reductive. A thespian. Willfully ignorant.
Just an endless array of nouns and adjectives.
Is there no longer gratification in one’s own actions derived from treating your fellow beings with the same, (if not a dash more), respect one would expect to be treated with in return? This is about wherewithal – the commonsense use thereof; and, conversely, subsequent neglect of aforementioned. Why, it’s almost biblical…
Let’s play a bit with etymology shall we? One must return to Chaucer and Shakespeare to dust off some of the earliest appearances of the word ‘wherewithal’, or variances of it, anyway. And from there we shall see the word slither (cuz words can do that – they are not nearly as steadfast as numbers) between the pins, for the word enjoys being elusive. From ‘the with’ to ‘with what’ to ‘with which’ to ‘that with which’, it seems the word generally found use as an indicator for having the means; resources or resourcefulness and/or money.
But I believe that wherewithal and civility are an oddly tangled pair; that both share the same bed, same clothes and toilet, drink from the same trough, run about in the same neighborhoods. Broke some glass on the asphalted streets there, stole some candy from the local 7-11, perhaps even kissed or peed in somebody’s yard.
Biblical; *talking to Preachy-Preach about Kissy-Kiss (*Pixies – Bone Machine). Thou shalt not be angry and/or disgruntled…and for fuck’s sake, do not leave a digital trail espousing that you are a steroid-marinated patriot. Do not be old and pissed that the bureaucrats are taking your SS and your meds and all the good toilet paper.
Be proud to live in a country that dubiously deemed you competent enough to own a firearm. Issued you an SS card. Probably a DL as well. Provided you with mostly decent roads to drive upon and park space to walk and plot your plots. Just think how those delicious schemes of yours may have dissolved had a couple bags of fast food refuse blown around your path, a dust devil of grease micro-dots and cheesed wax paper?
My question, though, is whether or not civility, the wherewithal to be kind, is utilized only as a path toward power or acquisition.
Apparently. Where was I?
Cops are civil servants. You and I are kinda civil servants too – defenders and champions of our brothers and sisters. There was a time when many children aspired to be cops. They wanted to do good. To do what was right and to warrant the trust of the community in which they served and brokered the peace as civil servants.
Children still want to be cops now, but no doubt the motivations have changed. Now you may get responses more like ‘to have a gun’ or ‘to kill the bad people’ or ‘to put all the bad people in jail’. Which is unfortunate, for where exactly are those more than 500 shades of grey that color each and every day to day in this mixture?
I arrived in Southern California in August of 1999 after having spent 7 years living in Ukiah, a green and ‘weedy’ hamlet in Mendocino County. Ukiah is the Pomo Indian word for “South Valley”. It is also haiku spelled backwards.
I have noticed since being here that when it gets warmer, much warmer, people lean more towards the primal, the base. Lots of people in a small geographic area. Creatures with teeth and sharpened barbs, hair triggers, snapped caps, etc.
I do believe road rage originated here in SoCal…not just yelling at another driver but the actual exiting of one’s vehicle. Confrontational. Possibly with a firearm in hand.
But the behavior extends well beyond the freeways and surface streets. In the clubs. In the markets. At the movies (there was a theater shooting a few years ago out in Palmdale or Lancaster after a one theater patron asked another to silence their cell while the film was rolling and instead got shot).
Sporting events…although that’s hardly a surprise and perhaps a topic better left for another day….mouth-foaming rivalry that extends from the turf to Main St. to the halls of Congress and beyond. Apparently, rendering the world in strictly black and white terms makes it more manageable for most…screw the grey, right? And mind you, it’s real easy to forget that we regular folk bump each other off with much greater frequency than the police take us down.
The point though, has to do with civility, and our lack thereof.
What the fuck has happened? Not that this was ever entirely a Kumbaya / Buy the World a Coke type of joint. No, it was never entirely that nor was it ever very close but it was also never so dramatically the opposite either. Yes – we can’t all just get along. Of course not. But we can abide. Coexist. Maybe.
The ‘Coexist’ of bumper sticker and tattoo fame is farcically used also by gun-huggers. And maybe many are the same folks who refer to people like me (white, heterosexual, way left of center) as ‘snowflakes’. If I could walk in your shoes for a day I gladly reluctantly would; I want to feel what you feel. I want to know your anger and dissatisfaction. There are many other shoe pairs I would gladly reluctantly walk in too.
I want to know fear. Abuse. Betrayal. I want to know what it’s like to walk out the door in the morning believing there is a real good chance I may not be returning; deported or murdered or outright purchased as a companion. There is no way for me to know what it is like and it is way too easy for me to embrace my-our-their humanity, our civil duty as citizens of the same damn country, because of what I am and where I am. Believing that I am as unique as a snowflake.
Having a disability has not made me a better person but it has, I believe, slapped me around enough so I can more readily concede just how rotten the community has long been. It would be hollow for me to tender resignations about the splintering and loss of it, the shared sense of purpose revolving around it, for indeed that was the illusion we all were fed Once upon a time…before the dragons trucked in the ash…
Years ago I lived in Santa Cruz, CA. One night a friend and I were out wandering around Capitola talking about music and politics and girls. We decided to grab some beer and drink up on the RR bridge that spanned Soquel Creek about a ½ mile from where the creek emptied into the Pacific.
A group of maybe 6-7 walked past us as we sat on the gravel and ties drinking. We exchanged a hello and that seemed to be that. Until 10 minutes later when one of the fine gentlemen of that party returned and requested a beer.
We literally only had a few left and that’s what we told him. So he pulled out a knife and demanded one of our beers. We let him know how uncool he was being, but we gave him one.
We finished what was left and as we were leaving another member of that party approached us to apologize on knife-boy’s behalf, assuring us that he was really a “cool guy” who was just fucking around.
Last summer I was working clearing boreholes (I work for a geophysical company) prior to ground intrusion activities. We were at a strip mall. There was a Starbucks with 2 handicapped spots out in front.
After I witnessed the 5th or 6th car abuse the location with yet another load of healthy bodies, I finally had had enough and approached the 7th. I informed the young man that he could not park there as it was a designated handicapped parking spot. He told me to fuck off and mind my own business.
Just like that…0 to asshole in an instant. Had his halitotic vitriol been any more venomous and/or lyrical I would have believed myself captive before both the lyricist and vocalist for the Butt Song from Hell (see Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights). We ‘debated’ for a few minutes.
He cursed at me a few more times and almost got out of his car due to my persistence. I had to return to work, but apparently I made enough of an impression for not 2 minutes later I saw him parked instead in the fire lane, still with that snarl on his face, still waiting for his girlfriend who he had said suffered from ‘blindedness’. I saw her too, returning to the car, walking unaided with a coffee carrier and a small bag, deftly eluding the morning caffeine traffic.
Where were the police then? Where was Starbucks’ management? And if either were around would it have mattered?
Many people currently are placing the blame at the feet of the president. That’s too damn easy. This problem has roots deeper than that.
And the problem is far beyond the dark allure of politics. Seems like we’re just popped out that way these days…or it is instead the first class we the people as pupil are instructed in. Maybe.
Remember how this started, with me apologizing? In a broader yet limited sense let’s say that this chapter of incivility began 50 odd years ago…with Nixon in the White House. Even then Tricky Dick made a feeble attempt at some kind of national civility, asking for us all to try and get along.
The Vietnam War raged even as it wound down. Protests. Stonewall. Inflation. The more things change…Can’t we somehow just get along? Can we discuss the fact first that WE are as much to blame as anything or anyone else for this lack of wherewithal?
Lots to be said for observational learning theory…
Where exactly in the Terms & Conditions on Facebook or Instagram is one commanded to be a jerk? A knee-jerk jerk at that?
Where within the algorithms of Google and Snapchat is the red flag for incivility? Right – it’s not there because this is not a recent phenom. Incivility is contagious like yawning or influenza.
It makes me think of the Pac Man games…both Mr. Man and Ms. Pac Man. Being chased by ghosts that could very easily represent shades of the psyche, long buried colors and codes and calamities. Turning them blue and eating them is akin to seeing one’s therapist or just having a particularly good day, oozing that which weighs one down out of one’s pores. And we all want dots for sure…
But civility. There used to be unwritten rules for discourse. There were protocols. Protocols were followed unconsciously.
Things could get heated, but at the end of the day people were able to part company with their dignity intact and their respect for the other party furthered, deepened. Often, anyway.
To those who say that nice people finish last, I say suck it. To those who say it’s a dog-eat-dog world, I say suck it. To those who decry the loss of decency not only in America but globally due to ubiquitous violent and flagrant sexual imagery flooding screens and airwaves and lyrics and literature and malls and universities, high & elementary schools…well… #SuckIt.
It’s a lot bigger than that and you know it.
Sean J Mahoney works in geophysics. Sean helped create to the Disability Literature Consortium , which made its physical debut at AWP16 in Los Angeles. He co-edited the 3 existing volumes of the MS benefit anthology Something On Our Minds, and works as an assistant editor for Wordgathering.com. His work has been published at Occupoetry, Breath & Shadow, Nine Mile Magazine, OTV Magazine, Catamaran Literary Reader, Your Impossible Voice, and the Antithesis Journal, among others.