Because the tribe is its members, the tribe is what its members want it to be—nothing more and nothing less.
― Daniel Quinn, Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure
The shape of my life is the daily intersections of the people I have come to integrate into part of my total life clan – sources as journalist, people in academia who have inspired me, students, the places in my mind from countless travels out of this culture, USA, and the many I have worked with as both instructor and social worker. And many more.
The foundation of my “man lost of tribe” conveyances is based on not believing in the structures and status quo of the place I hold in US society – male, now 60, denuded of agency, really, in the scheme of capitalism’s storied stories of what it is to be successful and valued in this nickel-and-dimed culture. What we hold to his health and harmony, blended learning and giving, not taking. What we hold is the breath and the memory, and the expansiveness of memory and experience to put spark and ignition to rebuffing of the daily slide the society puts precarious workers like myself into . . . by the tens and tens of millions in the USA and billions worldwide.
We grasp at straws sometimes as social workers, gasping at the daily witnessing of humanity at its best, singularly, and the culture at its worse, collectively. The day opens in the dark and ends with a bright lightness of being in a world alight by the hopes, dreams and smarts of people who have hit rock bottom and under that, but still, everyday, attempt to thrive and survive. Comedy in tragedy and the entire shooting match of my life are held by the thread of the threadbare social services this society and the philanthropies have deemed as handouts, doles, welfare, for the growing legion of homeless, rudderless, drug and booze induced. “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”1
My father told me to be expecting mail from you but I didn’t take him seriously. No one writes me except my mother and girlfriend. You’re right we don’t know each other very well but fortunately we at least know “of” one another. What’s your Zodiac sign? Me being a Taurus does make me very stubborn. But being in jail has given me a lot of time to think, analyze and more aware of my actions, decisions and overall reason I’m spending 50 (months) and counting here. If you want honesty, I’ve been struggling with addiction since 8th grade. Started with drinking, cigarettes and marijuana. By the end of freshman year progressed to Ecstasy, Xanax, cocaine and meth. Now a days I’ve overcome using needles (5 years now) and only partake in meth. What have I learned from meth? It destroys not only your social life, family, occupational living and physical life. But also you as a general human being.
My personality, character, attitude, physical appearance, everything went downhill. Along with that, I picked up an overbearing and controlling gambling habit. Lottery, scratch offs and video slots. I refuse to continue living my life that way. I’m better than that and have a complete understanding in knowing my family deserves more from me. My parents gave me nothing but the best life they could and my hard-headed, stubborn ways let them down.
I never did any of this to be cool . . . I really have a problem and finally I’m past the first step of admitting and allowing myself to accept help. So help me all you can with words of wisdom and past experiences and hopefully I will succeed on my quest of sobriety. Until paper and pen meet again,
Love always, Tonya
Bob, 69, mean streets of Chicago, still smart as a whip, Black Panthers for a while, now complete AA recovery, god and bible, but as cool of a cat as any Zoot Suiter, style and class. Bob is fighting addiction and a rap sheet 57 pages long. Last time in trouble with the law — possession of controlled substance, that lover, heroin, like no other lover, though. Bob is still a randy guy, 69, wears the coolest hats around, shined shoes and uses a soft voice.
Imagine my job, social worker, playing with the mean streets of Portland, where Bob has resided for a few decades . . . job after job, the stolen wages of the punishment society – fees, fines, restitution, legal financial obligations, garnishments, pending debts.
What is a man but his way of living now after tumultuous days and then weeks and years, decades, some way to make sense of senseless rudderless displacement. The struggle of boys in Chicago, nothing but bad cops, bad renters, the souls of the drugged and beaten, like ghosts emitted from the smokestacks of fallen industries.
Bob knows the work of “The New Jim Crow” and “I Am Not Your Negro.” We talk about Malcolm X and brother Evers, all that is Billie Holiday, all that could have been the raging Black Panthers. The jostle and hustle of deals, robberies, strong arm and smash and grab, the night streets with heat, women, men, throbbing, something other than suit and tie, briefcase and the murdering stock broker-lawyer-manager-office worker-CEO. Politicians as dirty as sewer rats, and the entire Chicago inbred scene a place where a young Bob flows with the only things he knows, the kids, older boys and women, street walkers and pavement pushers, the occasional big murder spree and the endless wars between the sexes, generations, oh where oh where have all the role models gone?
The letter above is from his 26-year-old niece in Illinois, incarcerated for possession and intent to distribute of a controlled substance – more than four years thrown at her, his niece he had never known, just through the photographs and early in her adolescence, a trip or two back to Chicago. The mean streets and elegance of survival, pushing through, all those addiction blocks put up to stop you from even getting out of the quagmire that is poverty, racism, isolation, gentrification, bad schools, bad peers, addiction and running and gunning.
African-American lesbian, aged 26, in prison, awaiting some lawyer’s jujitsu to reverse sentence, illegal search and seizure, same old tricks of bad cops and really bad prosecutors, Chicago style, and yet, Bob, Uncle Bob, sees the light, and seeks some absolution by contacting his niece who had never known him, precipitating the above beautiful appeal for love and family and rejoining in his niece’s heart..
Personal prison appeals never publicized, not on mainstream TV, nor in the bowels of Hollywood; not in the night tremors of the politicians, no mayor, maybe no one in the political class, certainly not Mrs. Super Predator Clinton Super Predators or Donald Kill the Central Park Five Innocents Trump, in their guffawing toasts in Manhattan with the other nematodes fawning over killers like Kissinger or Greenspan, all of the elite (sic) class (sic) could ever understand the force of those two simple uncle-to-niece prison correspondences.
Let them eat cake, be damned . . . . Let them eat shit . . . . Force-feed the shit of the privatizers into each and every orifice.
That digression comes from decades of witnessing the shit of politicians, businessmen and now businesswomen, the city and county meetings, planning and zoning, all the cop shops, all the feds and border thugs, all the displays of ignorance and smarts, tied to exploiting the exploited, the super predators are the banks-mortgage holders, are the Repo men and women, the charter school tycoons, the retailers and the ever-expanding middle middlings wanting some chunk of the pie so they can continue to see their navels pop out like nascent boas, popping out to one day be the gator-eating 50 foot constrictors, which is what almost every white upper echelon family produces: offspring, the seeds of more and more maximizers coming at the exploited, as these soldiers of Goldman Sachs and Data Mining Industries and purveyors of bad schools, bad psychology, bad criminal law, bad tort law, bad food, bad literature, bad movies and bad medicine come at us all, even those of us who went to schools and post-graduated, coming at us, calling us the “saps of and drains on the economy,” “the lazy ones,” “the ones sucking up our potential lifetime of profits!”
But I digress again, easily captured by the sirocco of bad policies tainted with the ions of disturbed minds. Bob is my client, and we work on learning, my own learning, as he seeks me as a social worker, and in his full personal class, he’s announced at big meetings, his gratitude for my very presence not only in his life but on planet earth! Here’s his letter to his niece.
Hello there. I hope this finds you in the best of health as well as spirits. I know this is a surprise to you, that I am writing you. You’re my niece, and believe it or not you are special to me.
I know we don’t know each other very well, but I know you are very intelligent and very stubborn, like me (ha-ha). Tonya, I have a lot of knowledge, experience, and information inside my head and heart. For me it is not being hip, slick and cool anymore. I have tens months clean and working on tomorrow. Let me try and help you and be a friend. Let’s get to know and be straight with each other. Be strong and take care of yourself.
Your loving uncle, Bob
P.S. Shock me and reply to this letter!
Easy to pooh-pooh this as an old man seeing the errors of his ways, on the back slide of life, in a recovery program (his 20th) and in that point in American life – poor, on food stamps, at the whim of county, state and non-profit programs housing him and hiring people like me to do social work with him – to find humility. Bob is a worker, and has worked for a year with a temp agency, and now the chain hotel wants to hire him on directly, and we have worked with those restraints; i.e., what the faceless, nameless and heartless HR department will do with his rap sheet that goes back to age nine, those mean streets of Chicago not a damned thing David Mamet or the other chosen one, John Malkovich, both Chicagoans, could even fester up in their wildest “liberal white Jewish dreams.”
Poignant? Sure, but more importantly a sign of the design of breaking up neighborhoods, family units, extended tribes, the very fabric of some large swath of African American lives . . . survival.
Bob gave me both these letters, after I asked, telling him that in some way, I might be able to riff on, or run with these words – simple, personal, an awakening of a 26-year-old woman and her 69-year-old uncle. Chicago and Portland, two racist cities for the record books.
Bob donates time feeding the homeless, even though he is technically chronically homeless, but now in transitional housing my organization provides. Technically, Bob is a prisoner in his own neighborhood, city and state, but in his mind, Robert is free, and he sails above the ugly smoke spewing from his past, every single day, relishing in the light, the sun, the surly clouds and gutters full of rain, trash and needles.
Evidence of life in the American Homo Consumptipithecus, is the struggle and the triumph of these former users, always an addict, always tied to the very mean streets that brought them to the rock at the bottom of the fall. These people are the signals of humanity in an inhumane business world, transactional climate, where numbers and screen icons and hedging onto and into lives are about maximizing the money made off the backs of uncles and nieces, off the continuous punishment systems, each bureaucrat a Little Eichmann in the Making! Banality of Evil, and the force of collective indifference. Like a thousand hydrogen bombs dropped in the middle of America.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky in a letter to his Niece Sofia Alexandrovna, Geneva, January 1, 1868. [↩]