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.”
When A.J. was thrown out of his little garret in July of 2001, he did not exist on paper. He was an unknown quantity to the earmarkers of the state, and he liked this fact. But it posed a question: The owner of the building, an old man who happened to realize in the bubble economy that he had a pile of money in the four floors of his brownstone, offered A.J. a cut of the proceeds from the sale. The owner had known A.J. most of his life and felt bad about evicting him. Total cut was $50,000—for A.J., an enormous sum. But to receive the gift, A.J. would have to acquiesce to an existence on paper; the money couldn’t just be handed over in cash; it would wait for him in a bank account, and to claim the account, he needed identification. So how to get the money? A.J. had never paid taxes, never voted, never been fingerprinted or had a credit card or a driver’s license or a Social Security card or any other official identification.
“I lived under the radar, and it’s going to stay that way,” he said. “I’ve seen enough of what the government can do when it gets its hands on your identity. You give that up, you might as well march down to the police station and tell ’em to get it over with and arrest you now, and they’ll say, ‘Well, why?’ and you’ll say, ‘You got my identity. You’ll find a reason to arrest me soon enough.’ ”
“You need I.D. to live in this world,” I told him. I had the odd feeling, saying the words, that I was actually a tape-recorded message, and I immediately apologized.
“This world,” he said. “Which world? I’ve known people my whole life and we never knew each other’s last names, and we were good friends and kept it that way. The people who weren’t your closest and most intimate didn’t want to know those things and I knew there was something as knowing too much about a person, and that could get you killed. There were people whose faces I knew, and that was it. And they knew my face, and that was it – it was the trust between us.”
A.J. spat on the sidewalk and said, “Now it’s all about getting your identity down to a science. Devices to track you down and track you out. Everywhere now. The cellphone? Tracking device. This Internet thing? Tracking device. Credit cards, Metrocards, EZ-Passes, bank accounts, saving accounts, mortgages—all keeping a record.”
I laughed at him as paranoid, but this was years before the country learned about the government’s data-mining of exactly those kinds of records.
A.J. never took the $50,000. The price of going on the radar was too much. When he finally parted from my father’s basement, he ended up finding another basement, this one in the Brooklyn brownstone of an old drunkard lady, happy and cursing, who puts him to work keeping the house from falling down.
Christopher Ketcham, a freelance journalist in New York City, writes for Harper’s, Vanity Fair, GQ and many other magazines. Find more of his work at www.christopherketcham.com or contact him at email@example.com.
Jon Rawlinson (CC-BY)