Mar 9, 2014
God Bless Cantankerous Old Men
Posted on Aug 1, 2011
When Michael Jackson died a few years ago, my father, who is 72, called me to complain. “What the hell is this Max Jackoff business?”
“Dad, what are you talking about?”
“It’s all in the news. Never heard of him before. Some sort of man-boy. Singer. Runs around on stage making chirping sounds. He apparently died of plastic surgery or some such.”
“Michael Jackson, dad.”
“Can you believe the time and trouble being spent on this weirdo?”
My father is an engineer and city planner and tends toward the macro view of things, looking at the life of cities over time, much the way geologists look at rock. In retirement, he’s been reading about the coming collapse of the United States due to debt and waste and war and greed—the books pile up on his shelves—and is increasingly radicalized by the macro conclusion that the country is screwed.
“Why aren’t the young people out protesting? Why aren’t they going nuts over what’s happening? Why aren’t they going after these fucking CEOs?”
“Busy thinking about Max Jackoff,” I offered.
I’ve been lucky enough to have old people around me, mostly my parents and their friends, who are growing more cogently contrarian in mind every year their bodies grow more infirm. If Michael Jackson was beloved and continues to be mourned by tens of millions of Americans, then my father is sure to disagree. I might venture to craft a probability equation of his thinking: The more people gathered around any one totem in the zeitgeist, the more likely my father is to consider it a waste of time. This thought process is not out of spite or fury or disgust, but born, I’d guess, of the simple reckoning that most popular culture these days, being popular, isn’t worth shit on a stick.
I’ve been thinking recently of another old man, a friend of the family named A.J. Centola, who went homeless a few years back—the garret he lived in was the top floor of a brownstone converted to condos during the real estate bubble—and ended up sleeping in my dad’s Brooklyn basement for six months. A.J. and I used to sit around gabbing on afternoons, walking around the old neighborhood, Carroll Gardens, where he grew up during the last Great War, when it was an insular little place of Irish and Italians who hated each other, and merchant marines in boardinghouses, and dockworkers, ironworkers, grocers, and freelance laborers like him.
Losing his garret, losing the context of the place where he’d worked as an electrician and carpenter for 60 years—he’d never left Carroll Gardens—was agony for the guy, and it was made worse because he was a smart man, he’d read his history, he knew what was happening was part of a transformation of class throughout the neighborhood, the wiping away of the class without money. At that time, in the spring of 2002, all sorts of new and expensive bars and restaurants were going up, places that sold pain aux raisins in the morning. And in the summer evenings the restaurants filled with well-dressed crowds of the young.
A.J. lived on cigarettes and vitamins, ate maybe once a day, a pizza or a chicken roll or a cheese roll at Sal’s Pizzeria, which had been at the same spot since the war. He walked with a pained-looking half-hunch and he suffered tremors—he said he was like a Jack Russell terrier, too much unused energy. It shot through his limbs and made him shake, but I thought it was the onset of Parkinson’s.
I’d see him sometimes pacing Court Street, the main stretch of commerce in the neighborhood, without him seeing me. His short, slow, ginger steps in front of restaurants. Glancing with his heavy neck into the windows at the crowds with a look of infinite suffering. The only eatery he would step foot in besides Sal’s was Josie’s Java, a closet-sized, ancient-looking dinette that had a bench outside with signs posted, “Buy a cup and get a free video!” Which prompted A.J. to ask, “Yes, free video – but of what?” He liked Josie because she was old and mean and refused to ingratiate herself with customers.
“She won’t make it in the new Brooklyn,” A.J. said one day. “And I dunno if there’s anything new about it. Same fools nearly ruined France, nearly ruined England. You have one class now in Carroll Gardens, the mono-class of the rich. No industry, no trades, no jobs for the average person to pull himself up. Now it’s all restaurants on Court Street that the old-timers can’t afford. People live their whole lives in the same place, and then this is not their place.
“Now we got the Television Watchers, the Cellphone Talkers. Whole class of men and women who watch TV or some version of it, like this Internet thing—stay attached to little machines all day long. A lifetime. Sad. Free-thinking goes in the toilet. The Television Watchers start thinking alike, looking alike, buying alike, and they don’t know why. I’m harsh. I don’t forgive the TV for lying so much. Some people do. Ever thought of the rise of the television and that funny little coincidence of the Cold War and the national security state? National Security Act is signed in 1947. OSS becomes CIA. Five years later—less—first televisions go into mass production, mass distributed. The Television Watcher is born while the state expands. Enormous increases in defense funding, war funding. A standing army is built unlike any you ever seen in the history of the country. Expansion of the secrecy of affairs: The things that can be held from people now include billions of dollars, all that black spending. State grows and grows and grows, and so do the Television Watchers. Cold War was the worst thing to ever happen to this country.”
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