ISSUE 101 JUNE 2007 CONTENTS HOME PAGE
I like bad kids. I don’t mean the witless wonders that trip over themselves to get in your face; I’m talking about the serious performers who know how to piss you off with purpose and panache. Any kid can hurl insults or break wind, but to do it at precisely the right moment, with just the right composition, tone and amplitude, calls for a fortuitous combination of intuition, desire and discipline that belongs to the precious few. At this level it is an art form, a creative expression that deserves to be appreciated and nurtured like any other.
The trouble is that most adults feel threatened by such artistry. Blinded by the fear of losing their illusionary authority, they are completely incapable of distinguishing between the goons and the gifted. So, they lash out indiscriminately. God only knows how many potentially brilliant careers have been destroyed by their moralistic pig ignorance. I, on the other hand, have become something of a connoisseur. I love to study the masters at work and watch their apprentices wrestle with the fundamentals of the craft.
The first thing you have to realize is that this is essentially an interactional art form. As a participating adult, your outrage is a critical element in the performance. Consider a Costello without an Abbot, a Laurel without a Hardy or a Bush without a Saddam. What defines the form and impacts the audience is not so much the stimulus as the response, the effect of the actor upon the observer, and vice-versa. Excellence is achieved when the responder is induced to match his or her reaction perfectly to the original creative act. In the theatrical world, this is a conscious collaboration involving natural intuition, acute sensitivity and, above all, exquisite timing. But in the combat zone where ruling adults do daily battle with unruly kids, such collaboration would destroy the integrity of the exercise. Here the skilled performer must rely upon his or her ability to predict or elicit the response of the unsuspecting stooge — a daring proposition that even the most competent and courageous professionals would think twice about.
And this is where the witless wonders fall flat on their stupid faces, right at the first hurdle. Unable to read the target and the audience, they blunder on, never knowing quite what to do, how far to go, or what buttons to press, until somebody blows the whistle. They are clowns, more likely to be ridiculed than revered. What they lack is ‘role-taking ability,’ the capacity to see and judge the world through the eyes of others. On the surface this may look like raw intuition but it isn’t. Accurate role-taking involves using all of the senses in a thoughtful and disciplined way. It also demands a clear sense of personal boundaries — being able to separate one’s own experience from the imagined experience of the other. So if you find yourself around kids who have that uncanny ability to get you going, you can confidently assume that their role-taking ability is more developed than yours. In this area at least, they are more personally aware and interpersonally adept. And if this recognition pisses you off even more, your troubles are just going to get worse. Your only salvation is to accept your relative inadequacy with grace and follow in their footsteps — in a dignified and adult manner of course. There is much to be learned.
Talented kids learn how to choose their unwitting collaborators carefully early in their career. For practice purposes, the ideal candidate is someone who is uptight enough to ensure a response but is unlikely to be provoked into creating some life-threatening retaliation (these maniacs are best left to the most skilled and seasoned practitioners). For similar reasons, the astute rookie will select targets located somewhere in the middle of the power hierarchy. The lowly and humble offer little satisfaction while the powerful and mighty can extinguish the creative flame with the stroke of a pen. Resisting the temptation to aim too high is a fundamental aspect of the practitioner’s discipline.
I entered the arena as a mid-range target working in a closed institution for evil boys. As a rookie front-liner with a university degree, a new bicycle, and a misdirected inclination to make a difference in other people’s lives, I was an ideal mark.
Contrary to all expectations, my first week on the job went like a dream. I couldn’t believe how well I was received by the residents — neat kids really. Even the “ones to watch” seemed to acknowledge my legitimate place in the scheme of things. Some even took the time to inquire about my wellbeing and ask the odd question about my life on the outside. What I didn’t realize was that the “ones to watch” were carefully watching me.
By comparison, my new colleagues were distant and impersonal. They talked about the pragmatics of institutional life, ate meals at their own separate table (the only one with a cloth) and warned me about the dangers of becoming personally involved with the “inmates.”
At my first staff meeting I alienated myself further by suggesting that ‘Flash’ Flannigan’s preoccupation with his prize-winning genitals might not be resolved by forcing him to wear boxing gloves to bed. Between meetings, the only friendly gesture I can recall came from a deputy warden named Drew (“Drew the Screw” the inmates called him) when he walked in and caught me lending a book to a kid doing solitary. “We don’t do that,” he said, grabbing the book from the prisoner and ushering me out into the walkway. “We put them in there to think, not to be entertained. A book today, God knows what tomorrow.” He bolted the door from the outside. Then, without warning, he shook my hand. “You’ll learn,” he said, patting my shoulder with his other hand. “These things take time.” Then he took off with my “Lord of the Flies” stuffed in his jacket pocket. “Screw you Drew,” I said, after he had disappeared into the labyrinth. “Sooner you than me,” said a voice from one of the cubicles.
If my colleagues seemed distant from me, they were even more remote from the “inmates”. Even the Staff Psychologist, who spent most of his time preparing reports, rarely left his office and could be seen only by appointment. So, whenever my custodial and program responsibilities allowed, I chose to hang out wherever the kids happened to be. I wanted to be available without being intrusive, to listen rather than talk. Of course there was the usual testing-out — the breaking of minor rules, unacceptable language and “ungentlemanly conduct,” but it was all fairly benign and, for the most part, I managed to hang in without having to call upon the power invested in me. When push came to shove, I was usually able to support my non-interventionist stance with the belief that this was all part of changing the institutional ethos. On the odd occasion when I did bring out the rule book, there was never any major challenge to my authority and I really appreciated the guys for this. Most of the time I actually enjoyed the banter, even the goading, that went back and forth, and participated to the extent that my role and dignity would allow. It was during this time that I began to notice how some kids were particularly adept at crossing the line without hanging themselves out to dry on the other side. It didn’t occur to me then that this had always been central to my own ambitions and that I was responding to my own institutionalization in precisely the same way — hence my fascination.
“The guys really like you,” Jimmy (Masher) McLintock told me one day. “They trust you more than the other goons around here.” Ignoring the implication that I was also a “goon,” I took some satisfaction from the sentiment. But that’s not what I was really looking for. It’s true that I wanted to be accepted but this wasn’t simply about ego. I wanted them to trust me, confide in me, tell me about their lives, their hopes and their fears. I wanted them to know that someone in that institutional backwater cared about them as unique human beings and not simply as inmates with a sentence to be served. I wanted them to see themselves as worthwhile individuals with real potential to go on and make something of their lives. I wanted to make a difference, to do the work I’d come to do.
So, when inmate Harry Hassleback, the Kipling House captain, told me in confidence that young Brendan O’Leary had a “personal problem” and wanted to me about it, I disguised my delight behind a perfunctory nod. Brendan was a morose kind of kid who never had much to say for himself and I was really quite shocked that he would choose me to be his counsellor. Harry said he would arrange for us to meet privately in the dorm during study hour.
O’Leary was indeed a very unhappy fellow. He sat on the corner of his bed with his head bowed and mumbled his discontent to some indistinguishable spot on the floor. Only through my constant requests for clarity and clarification was I able to pick up the gist of his story. He had lost contact with his mother, the only person who meant anything to him. Apparently she was suffering from some debilitating illness and had been forced to leave her apartment for reasons unknown. She had given her son her new address but no phone number and his letters, three in all, had been returned unopened. When I suggested he might phone his probation officer and ask him to look into the situation, Brendan shook his head. He was due to be released in a few weeks and if mother was nowhere to be found, or was living in circumstances deemed to be undesirable, he would have to be transferred to another correctional facility. But news about his mother’s was much more important than his own freedom. He just wanted to know that she was okay. No probation officer or social worker would ever give him the straight goods. Brendan needed to hear from someone he could trust but there was no one on the outside, friend or family, who could be relied upon.
Contrary to all the rules of the system and the institution, I told him I would drop by on my day off and check things out. Given the circumstances, it was the least I could do, a simple act of humanity.
The address he gave me turned out to be a run down Victorian apartment house on the East Side. I climbed the stairs and rang the bell of Suite 304. The woman who invited me in was probably in her mid-twenties; a peroxide blonde with crimson lips, blue frosted eyelids and a perfume that smelled like mixture of grenadine and nil-odor. She had on a short floral kimono, fish-net stockings and precariously high heeled shoes that left small indentations in the linoleum. The ‘suite’ was actually a ‘bed-sitter’ — one room, curtains closed, one bed, poorly made-up, and one chair draped in an assortment of female undergarments. Having determined that my hostess was, in fact, the sole occupant, I turned to leave but she moved quickly to position herself between me and the door, now firmly closed. I sensed I might be losing control of the agenda. “I’m looking for Mrs. O’Leary,” I said.
“Well here I am,” she replied, opening her arms and, thereby, the front of her kimono. “Please call me Claudia. It’s a pretty name, don’t you think? I chose it myself.”
“Yes, yes I do, very pretty. But I’m in the wrong place.”
She moved a step closer. “Maybe you are, maybe you’re not. At least have a drink while you make up your mind.” She glided past me, reached under the bed and pulled out a cardboard box stuffed with bottles. “Scotch, Gin, Rum or Beer, what’s your fancy Ced?” She sat down on the bed and carefully adjusted her position until the hem of her Kimo was a good four inches above the top of her fish-nets. “Don’t worry,” she said, the price is included.”
The design of O’Leary’s conspiracy was obvious. What I needed now were the details, the evidence that would establish guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. Details of the hearing and punishment could be left for future consideration. “How do you know my name?” I demanded to know?
“Relax. I have friends everywhere.” She tapped the side of her nose with her finger and a frosted blue eyelid dropped into the wink position.
Even then, I would have continued my interrogation had it not been for the racket that suddenly erupted in the suite next door. At least two men and at least one woman were screaming and howling while someone, or something, pounded out a rhythmic accompaniment on the adjoining wall. As the cacophony was obviously escalating toward an ear-splitting crescendo, I decided to move out before the authorities had a chance to move in. Anticipating my departure, my hostess got up from the bed and spat on the floor in contempt. “Goddammed chickenshit,” she said, pushing the box back under the bed with her foot. On the way out, I passed a slovenly young buck lurking about in the front hallway. “Everything to your satisfaction?” he asked politely above the din. “Oh yes,” I assured him. “You should try it sometime.”
The following day I barreled into the Kipling Dormitory just as the wake-up bell sounded and made straight for O’Leary’s bunk. “Okay, where is he?” I hollered on discovering that his bed was sans corpus. Moans, grunts and an exquisitely timed fart greeted my inquiry. “Come on, where is the little shit?” House Captain Hassleback finally retrieved the basics of verbal communication. “He’s visiting his Mom,” he said wearily, sitting up in bed and stretching his arms above his head. “He gets an overnighter twice a month. Is there a problem?” He was yawning and blinking his eyes like a startled choirboy. I could have saved the world from immeasurable grief by ending his wretched career on the spot but self-interest prevailed. The events leading up to his grisly demise might have livened up the Correctional Archives and made good copy for the Tabloids but my mother would have been devastated by the publicity. Anyway, O’Leary would never have had to face the consequences of his own treachery. So, being a rational being and an aspiring professional, I kicked the leg of the vacant bed and departed, slamming the door on the way out.
Still comitted to my quest, I did a quick about-turn at the Gym, doubled back to the dorm and put my ear to the door. All was silent. But it wasn’t the gentle silence of a world in harmony, it was the sinister uneasy silence that wraps itself around otherwise unbridled malevolence. I knew instinctively that my conveniently absent ‘friend’ had spilled the beans to the degenerates of Kipling House, a den of deviance tragically named after the poet who had so eloquently articulated the most noble aspects of manhood. “Hitler House” would have been a far more appropriate designation.
When I returned to the staff office my fears rose to another level. Everyone appeared anxious to know about how I spent my day off. Even Drew, who had dropped in to read the night reports, seemed to be peering at me with uncharacteristic interest. “Oh I had all kinds of stuff to do at home,” l told them and, for whatever reason, they let me get away with it. I was tempted to blow away the whole charade with a full confession and a plea for mercy but revenge was still my primary preoccupation.
For the rest of the day, I shied away from human contact and restricted my activities to the confines of the Policy and Procedure manual. In the afternoon, as I was checking the dorms for illicit objects, materials and substances, and my mind continued on its course of retaliation, my brain decided to release a critical item from the vaults. It was a revelation that called for a major shift in strategy. I went down to the Records Office, signed out three files and checked the Duty Officer’s reports. Having substantiated my suspicious, I then slithered into to the metal shop, by way of the furnace room, and told Hassleback I wanted to see him in the Surgery immediately after dinner.
He arrived thirteen minutes late. Rather apologize or question the reason for our meeting, he immediately launched off into a stream of trivia about life in the institution. I simply stared at him until he chose to acknowledge that I was not on board. He stopped in mid sentence. “What?” he asked, as if he he’d just noticed my non-participation.
“What are you looking at me like that for?”
I went directly to the heart of the matter. “You set the whole thing up didn’t you? Your evil little mind planned the whole thing.”
“Set it up … set what up? What am I being accused of?”
“Oh, you want me to read you your rights eh? One phone call to a lawyer and all that bullshit. Forget it lad, you’re already in the Nick and it’s just you and me.”
Then he tried to turn the tables by interrogating me. “You and me talking about what?”
I decided to demolish his game plan on the first play. “Okay, let me go through the tedious exercise of telling you what you already know. I’ll talk, you listen.” Without giving him the satisfaction of letting him in on my personal disarray, I coldly recounted the facts: the contrived session with O’Leary; the case of the disappearing mother; the phony address; the collusion with Claudia – the works.
He listened attentively but with no hint of empathy or culpability. “Sounds like fun, but why are you pointing the finger at me?” He looked nonchalantly around the room.
“One, because O’Leary could not have dreamed this thing up, he doesn’t have that kind of twisted mind. Two, O’Leary doesn’t, and never did, live on the East Side. Three, your father, God have mercy on his Soul, lives three doors down from the Knocking Shop on Roberts. Four, your friend was on location to monitor the proceedings. I presume he filed a full report to your satisfaction.”
Point four was his only hope. “Friend? What friend? What are you talking about?”
“The kid who visited you at 3.15 p.m. on September 26th. I saw him in the waiting room. He was hanging around in the door when I left the scene of the crime. Frank Bellamy it was. Surely you remember good old Frank.”
Hassleback nodded thoughtfully. “Are you going to hand in a report on this?”
“You know damned well I’m not . . . and you know damned well why.”
He gave me a wide-eyed look and shrugged his shoulders.
My inner turmoil began to ooze out. “Okay so you conned me big guy. I hope it was worth it. I broke the rules to help out a kid who seemed to be in trouble. I put myself out on a limb for you and O’Leary. The staff are right, you guys are a bunch of juvenile psycho’s. You don’t give a shit about anybody. Well, lesson learned. From now on I go by the book. So you can tell all of your pals out there to watch their scabby asses at every turn.”
He thought for a moment, looked up and smiled. “Well it really was a family visit you know.”
“Don’t give me that shit.”
“No really. Claudia’s my half-sister. Her real name’s Crystal … you can check it out.”
“And I suppose Crystal was just playing a role in your perverted little plot?”
“Hell no. I told her you were looking for services. It was all yours for the taking.”
“You scumbag. And what did you tell your friend Bellamy?”
“I just asked him to make sure you didn’t get into any trouble … real trouble I mean.”
“You bloody liar. I’m in trouble up to my neck. Everyone in this pigpen knows about it. Even if I manage to hold onto my job, my life around here isn’t worth a toss.”
Hassleback looked deadly serious. “That’s a pile of crap. The only ones who know are the guys in Kipling.”
“Oh sure. And they’ve all kept their dirty little traps shut, right?”
“Oh yeah, so why is that?”
“Because anyone who breaks the Kipling Code of Brotherhood wouldn’t have much left to live for. And because I’m the House Captain, unless you or the goons decide to fire me for some reason. Then, of course, the reasons would have to be considered in detail at a disciplinary tribunal.”
The implications of his last remark did not escape me. “So the Kipling Code of Brotherhood is it? Well the only code you’ll ever know is the Criminal Code and your brotherhood is no more than a clump of marauding maggots.”
“Oh no, Mr. House Captain, you’re the charmer. First you stick the boot in from behind. Then you try to con your way out of it. And now you’re offering me protection by promising to keep your trap shut. Now that’s charming. Even if you kept your word, which is unlikely without a lobotomy, you’ll always have your little package of blackmail to fall back on whenever the need arises. Well screw that Mr. Hassleback, Captain, Sir. Let’s get this thing out of the way once and for all.
Whatever was going on in his poisonous little mind, he looked genuinely distraught. ”That won’t happen. Trust me.”
“TRUST YOU.” Give me one good reason why I should trust you, or any of your squirming band of toadies.
“Because we trust you.”
“I mean it man. This won’t go any further … you can count it.”
“Get out of here. Go on, piss-off.”
“I said get out of here. Go on, Piss-off. NOW”
He left me alone to consider his proposition and my future. I have no idea what strange cognitive contortion persuaded me to believe him, but I did. And I remained in the job until long after Hassleback and his cronies had been discharged to continue their felonious careers elsewhere. It was a good decision.