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God Bless Cantankerous Old Men

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Posted on Aug 1, 2011
Jon Rawlinson (CC-BY)

By Christopher Ketcham

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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By jesus666, August 31, 2011 at 12:14 am Link to this comment

Good essay. No problem with his being a grumpy old man, but what gets me is this guy being a parasite! Never paid income taxes? He’s no better than a robber baron. Actually worse; some of them gave to charities.

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By traynorjf, August 10, 2011 at 1:35 pm Link to this comment

This is not a country. It’s an address.

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By Anarcissie, August 7, 2011 at 11:13 am Link to this comment

Is that where the math is?

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By felicity, August 7, 2011 at 11:01 am Link to this comment

A book came out a while ago, THE DUMBING DOWN OF
AMERICA.  The author made his case in spades. 
Judging by the sheer pap currently put out by the
television entertainment media, even evident in ads,
we now have devolved into a population forced? to
watch ‘entertainment’ which is a 21st century version
of the Roman games staged in the coliseum in 79 AD. 

So not only are we dumber, we’ve been turned into a
population that is being conditioned to accept man at
his most base as the norm.  Why aren’t we out in the
streets screaming bloody murder at the low-life
politicians running/ruining our country, the greedy
criminals drowning in the wealth they’ve accumulated
(off our backs?)  Because their baseness is normal.

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By Anarcissie, August 6, 2011 at 5:13 pm Link to this comment

What math?

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By omop, August 6, 2011 at 10:12 am Link to this comment

While God may bless cantankerous Old Men, Eric Cantor has exciting
plans for those who do make it to 71 years of age in the future.

  Cantor: Entitlement Promises ‘Frankly, Are Not Going To Be Kept For
by Pat Garofalo
During an interview with the Wall Street Journal, House Majority Leader
Eric Cantor (R-VA) said he is ready and willing to slash entitlements like
Medicare, because, in his opinion, Americans have to “come to grips
with the fact that promises have been made that frankly are not going
to be kept for many“:

What we need to be able to do is to demonstrate that that is the better
way for the people of this country. Get the fiscal house in order, come
to grips with the fact that promises have been made that, frankly, are
not going to be kept for many. [...] The math doesn’t lie.

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By Anarcissie, August 3, 2011 at 4:28 am Link to this comment

erica—Let’s not add guilt to the armentarium of the slave state.  We have no choice—it’s drive the government-licensed car or take the government’s bus or walk on the government-issued streets.  We can have confidence that our contribution was robbed from us before we were born.  I just find it sad that this noble savage threw away his freedom of spirit to make stupid fun of Michael Jackson, just as my old, stupid, ignorant, bigoted, right-wing, quasi-fascist relatives did.  ‘Who’s this Michael Jackoff’, indeed.  How witty.

And of course on this ‘progressive’ site he finds plenty of admirers.

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By litlpeep, August 2, 2011 at 10:24 pm Link to this comment

Obama and his tea party buddies are now making it easy for millions of us to go under the omnivorous info-vacuuming police state.  So be it.

What’s next?

Nation collapses. Invasion (Russia? Germany? Mexico?
Bolivia? Brazil? China? An Alliance of them all?) probably.

Learn to listen to your neighbors.  The invading state will get all the current police states slaves to do their bidding against you and your neighbors.

It always works that way.  Those slaves will wring their hands, accept their new pay package, and say in a Democratic Party chorus: “what can I do?”

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By erica, August 2, 2011 at 8:37 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m just wondering if this guy used his public library, or ever needed some attention at a hospital. It seems very selfish to me to spend your entire life only taking care of yourself, and never acknowledging that our cities provide services to everyone, supported by taxpayers.
It might be different if he never got on a bus, never flushed a toilet or turned on tap water or electricity - but living in a city, he took advantage of the infrastructure and at least some of the services we all chip in together to build and maintain.

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By Anarcissie, August 2, 2011 at 10:37 am Link to this comment

‘As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.’  —William Blake

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By SarcastiCanuck, August 2, 2011 at 10:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Max Jackoff???Hilarious.Maybe these elders are actually wise enough to realise that the attention thats given to pop culture assholes is totally out of control these days.Please TD,more comments from seniors to lighten my days.71 year old christian96 ain’t half bad,maybe give him a spot beside Hedges.“Conduct CAT scans on their brains and
see if there aren’t some wormholes in there”...Hahaha,brilliant…..More,please…

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By aacme88, August 2, 2011 at 6:30 am Link to this comment

@Anarcissie 5:49

“Actually, being ignorant about or contemptuous of Michael Jackson does not seem like a tremendous accomplishment to me.”

That is because you are a product of your environment, and never lived in the true, real world, which lasted with few important changes for thousands of years, but disappeared before you were born.

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By Anarcissie, August 2, 2011 at 5:49 am Link to this comment

Actually, being ignorant about or contemptuous of Michael Jackson does not seem like a tremendous accomplishment to me.

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By christian96, August 1, 2011 at 10:55 pm Link to this comment

Christopher—-Maybe it’s because I’m 71 years old
but I agree with your father.  What is it with
Michael “Jackoff” Jackson or any other so called
“artist” making big bucks off of nothingness?  The
entertainment industry has become a colossal waste
of time, energy, and minds.  But, to be fair, it
isn’t only the entertainment industry.  I’ve been
watching “The Universe” on the History International
channel.  The scientists on the program have been
wasting their time, energy, and minds trying to figure out if they can do “time-travel” by searching
for “wormholes!”  FOR GOD’S SAKE, what in the hell
has happened to people?  Children around the world
are starving to death while scientists look for
wormholes.  Conduct CAT scans on their brains and
see if there aren’t some wormholes in there. Our
world lacks intelligent leaders who will prioritize
the needs of ALL humans on earth and devise plans
to meet those needs.  If it wasn’t so pathetic I
would call the leaders in Washington a “comedy of
errors.”  They spend hour after hour trying to
rationalize why super-wealthy people should have
more money while the rest of the world struggles
to survive.  Pathetic spineless money worshipping
deceptive scum.

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By Lafayette, August 1, 2011 at 10:47 pm Link to this comment


Donna: Seems to me you are making this stuff up even my friggin 87 yr old dad that died two years ago knew exactly who the hell MJ was.

Do take a lesson in “tongue-in-cheek journalism”.

Those whom the Gods would destroy, they first make famous. (Euripides)

Actually, the quote from Euripides goes, “Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” But being “mad” and “famous” are often just a hop, skip and a jump from one another. MJ’s behaviour says as much.

This country has all the Media Celebrities it ever needs for half of its people to be living vicariously in LaLaLand.

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By Lafayette, August 1, 2011 at 10:34 pm Link to this comment


CK: “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?”

Cantankerous, that? Yes, in a society awash with « What’s in it for me”, perhaps.

We will be the victims of our own cupidity in a society where life is all about Me, Me, Me. And the Us, Us, Us can go stuff it.

What goes around, comes around in today’s viral society. All one need do is wait patiently.

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By Maani, August 1, 2011 at 10:26 pm Link to this comment

As a born and bred NYer (I have lived in my Upper West Side apartment for over 45 years), a community activist, and a minister whose primary ministry is outreach to and advocacy for the homeless, I can sya without fear of contradiction that the situation in NYC is FAR worse than anyone has thus far portrayed.

Yes, the city is cleaner, safer (statistically, anyway), and more economically sound than it has been in decades.  But at what cost?

-As with everywhere else, the middle class is being squeezed out, and we are moving toward a two-tier socio-economics: the rich (and super-rich) and the poor (and super-poor).

-Homelessness has risen faster in the past four years than I have seen since the 1970s.  Not only are the shelters absolutely packed to the rafters, but the number of street homeless has increased radically - particularly among the young.  [N.B. The City’s annual “census” of the homeless is notoriously faulty, and is not worth spit.]

-We are literally hemorrhaging small and “mom-and-pop” businesses in favor of banks, big-box stores, chain stores, etc.  I do a semi-annual census of the commercial strips of Broadway, Amsterdam and Columbus, from 59th to 86th Streets (the precinct in which I live), and by early 2011, we had more empty storefronts than we have had at any time that I have lived on the UWS.

-Not discussed at all is that NYC has become the poster child for the new “surveillance and police state.”  There are more c/c cameras and other intrusive devices than at any time in the past. Data is being mined from multiple sources. The number of CCRB complaints re police “over-reaction” (read “brutality”) and violation of civil liberties has risen steadily. Discussions of over-reaching re stop-and-frisks, marijuana arrests, profiling, etc. have been the stuff of national Op-Ed pages for the past few years.  And I could go on.

NYC still has alot to offer - arguably more than any other city in the world, particularly vis-a-vis culture.  And there are individuals (politicians, philanthropists, activisits, etc.) and agencies (both governmental and NFPs) that do try to “balance” some of the “bad” stuff, and are successful to varying degrees.

But NYC has become overly homogenized (and, as at least one person noted, not just in Manhattan, but even in parts of Brooklyn and Queens), and one can sense the social fabric fraying as the economics turn against the middle class, and pit the have-nots against the have-way-too-muches.  And, sadly, it is a foregone conclusion which side will eventually win.


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By Donna, August 1, 2011 at 8:24 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Seems to me you are making this stuff up even my friggin 87 yr old dad that died two years ago knew exactly who the hell MJ was. Give a break with you’re fake father blather to make a point…very tiresome…and no I am not Cantankerous but will now go back and read the rest of your obviously colored story.

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By Queenie, August 1, 2011 at 4:53 pm Link to this comment

The last time I was in New York City somebody had turned Times Square into Disneyworld. Done so, I believe by men who were afraid of life, impotent to boot.

Hell, there’s no one around to rebuild the Trade Center? Why the fuck not? Do erect buildings remind them of their inability to get their own erections? Where are the men who built these magnificent skyscrapers? Mostly dead I imagine. If not from old age then from embarrassment at the younger generation and their Viagra. Bob Dole notwithstanding. Pun intended.

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By dh17, August 1, 2011 at 2:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Anarcissie, I think an objective observer would immediately realize “the good old folks” are the one generation you can’t blame for what’s gone down the last ten or twenty years.  Whole lot of apathy going on these days.

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By CJ, August 1, 2011 at 11:37 am Link to this comment

I knew an A.J. who went by the name, “Mike.” His actual
name was Sebastian and he was a Spaniard who’d relocated to the U.S. in his
early 20s. I met him in Santa Monica’s Palisade Park where Mike practically
lived. So did I for a time and we’d run into one another and then wind up on a
bench like these guys pictured, except me the kid talking with the old man.
Some readers here might have met him too. He was gregarious as hell.

He was also cranky. He loathed the system exactly as A.J. did (the two about the same age). I was still learning to loath it on my way to becoming another cantankerous old man. I’m still getting there. It’s a status that has to be earned, as cynicism has to be earned. (What’s called cynical isn’t. Cynicism isn’t disdain or simply giving up. We can’t even recall our language but just toss out any old word that seems close enough.)

A.J. might have been describing loathsome Santa Monica or what was
fast becoming today’s Santa Monica, once a bungalow-laden tourist destination
for dwellers in LA proper. There was difference once, now long gone except for
homeless hangers-on still populating Palisade Park. Who’d have thought post-Modern “difference” would by now be passe? Assuming it was ever taken seriously by theorists. (I know, they meant something else.)

Mike was a prolific writer and with some unusual ideas. Too unusual for my
politics at the time. I’ve since reconsidered his theory of the “rogue” as perhaps
not entirely weird. (In short, the “rogue” rose to a position of power by his
nature. Mike meant, “sociopath.”) Not a complete theory but still an ever more credible one as I’ve observed those in positions of
power and even celebrated for their “rogueness.” (Gekko) Not that we don’t mostly
celebrate pretenders to “rogueness,” mistaking that for authenticity, and which must be
one result of the implementation of the national security state.

Which has been a major factor in the onset of gentrification, the likes of which
A.J. so despised. What reasonable person doesn’t despise that? While so many
are so desperately trying to achieve exactly that? (And then calling themselves
“liberals,” at least in Santa Monica. Huh? Say what? How so? The pressure to conform is tangible.)

There were never “good old days,” as one commentator here rightly notes.
Some problems have been somewhat solved since too often really bad old
days of racism and destruction of planet. Political correctness isn’t always
annoying, since often warranted.

But there are some serious differences. I’m not sure that the multiculturalism
then wasn’t a whole lot better than now, because more substantive then. Multi-culturalism now
seems more cause than actuality. But that’s true of
everything—talk, talk and more talk, damn little in the way of substance. We’ve
a paper tiger culture not only more devoid of competence but more importantly of
substance or content. “Max Jerkoff” indeed (R.I.P.). And lately Ms. Gaga. Not quite Oscar Wilde in either case.

Damnable identity politics so useless. Little connecting, but lots of theater, even more so in the political-economic
sphere where substance really materially matters. (There can’t be art before
food and shelter. A CD or Kindle does not make for nourishment of more than
mind—increasingly rarely.) A.J. was speaking of a more authentic multi-
culturalism, or so it sounds to me. And against theater over and above
national security stupidity that’s resulted only in various terrors and mind-numbing
conformity. And too of this internet and its off-shoots, both after and still TV. Not ALL bad!

But not so good either. Now is what it’s become and what it’s become must have been
what was intended—in general, since beyond the control of any one or any
group. Not cynicism but apathy.

We could use any number of A.J.s, and Mikes, the crankier and more cynical the better.

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By Anarcissie, August 1, 2011 at 8:29 am Link to this comment

One thing about the good old days and the good old folks is that isn’t so good is that they gave us the present.  Agreed, some of them are or were pretty interesting.  But.

I don’t see all that much future in gentrification, at least not in Brooklyn and the rest of New York City.  The driving force has been the expansion of the financial industry which is mostly parasitic.  A parasite needs a healthy host to live the good life, but the financial industry hasn’t been intelligent enough to keep the host healthy.  Most of the money flowing into it is government funny money, mediated by the expansion of credit; it is not really connected to value, which comes from labor.  When the well (remaining value) runs dry we can expect to see unstable financial times and political disorder caused by them.  These developments will not be conducive to further gentrification.

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By David J. Cyr, August 1, 2011 at 7:57 am Link to this comment

QUOTE, A.J. Centola:

“Ever thought of the rise of the television and that funny little coincidence of the Cold War and the national security state?”

When in New York City to attend the UN assembly in 1960, Nikita Kruschev expressed great admiration for (Soviet envy of) the greater sophistication of US television and radio networks being used for population control in America… far more effectively than in the USSR.

The corporate obedient conservatives and liberals, who comprise the mindless majorities, reflexively vote for the corporate party’s (R)s and (D)s because corporate media has removed their brains.

The Devolution of Liberalism:

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By Billee, August 1, 2011 at 7:26 am Link to this comment

I love the old-timers like A.J. who tell it like it is. I’m not old but I still resist having
all my personal stuff on line for anyone to see on facebook, twitter, linked in, etc.
There’s just something so naive and disturbing about wanting everyone to be able
to access me and my life. What really makes it more disturbing is that it’s
increasingly imperative that you do so in order to make a living. Sometimes I wish
I was old like A.J. so I could have had more life before this highly controlled era in
the u.s.

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By caped amigo, August 1, 2011 at 6:40 am Link to this comment

I love A.J. Wish he’d come around more often. He made me feel more alive.

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By ardee, August 1, 2011 at 6:00 am Link to this comment

Gee, Billy Pilgrim, as one who grew up in the Bronx I guess we are supposed to be mortal enemies.

I haven’t been back since my parents died, ten years or so, but even then the changes were evident. But change is the only constant after all.

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By Billy Pilgrim, August 1, 2011 at 4:05 am Link to this comment

I grew up in Brooklyn. Was there on business last
Friday. The neighborhood I was in was not far from
A.J.‘s. It’s been gentrified, like most of that area.
Places you wouldn’t want to be in after, or before
dark, are now little more than copies of modern
Manhattan, sanitized and taken over by those priced
out of Manhattan, yet still fabulously wealthy on
hedge fund and Wall Street money, or living off of
mommy and daddy, thanks to a tax policy crafted to
create a super rich class. Pretty soon, people like
A.J., will be gone, with no one else but the
generation of techies, oblivious to those around
them, twittering their most recent bowel movement and
updating their Facebook status; hooked on technology
as their predecessors in the newly hip neighborhoods
were hooked on crack. Who was better off? The
crackheads who gave up on society, or the techies who
“tune” it out?

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