The Twilight of the American Left


Posted September 4, 2021

“Leftists, in this telling — whether Ivy League professors or Antifa militants on the streets of Portland — are thus little more than the unwitting dupes of the ruling class. However much they profess to hate the Democratic Party, they are, in practice, its running-dog lackeys. They support the party electorally, harass and cancel its designated enemies and enforce pro-Democrat ideology in the media, academia and the workplace. Crucially, they also help maintain the permanent state of moral emergency that serves as a pretext for the expansion of ruling class power, whether in the form of the increasingly direct control that tech monopolies wield over political discourse or the pursuit of Covid policies that transfer wealth upward and subject workers to a dystopian regime of medical surveillance.

At the core of this diagnosis is the idea that “identity politics”, “antiracism”, “intersectionality” and other pillars of the progressive culture war are mystifications whose function is to demoralise and divide the proletariat.’

Read the whole text at:

https://unherd.com/2021/08/twilight-of-the-american-left/

Those Were the Days

By Kwame P. Dean

Posted August 17, 2021



I can’t shake it. After the expensive testing, overfilled flight and 15 hours straight in my mask in planes, trains, and automobiles, my 20 month hiatus from home ended with a feeling that things had changed in some fundamental ways.

Maybe “Midwest nice” has taken a beating as much as the economy during the dual political and viral pandemics? There seems to be a wariness in the air. The side eyes I got elevated the simple act of wearing a mask in Walgreens to social/political commentary.

In my first day back, my next door neighbor felt the need to declare his love of country in our socially distanced welcome back chat. People talked about birthday cakes for dogs in a grocery store parking lot. Starbucks gives away “pupachinos” and beer for dogs is a thing. Football season started. All normal stuff and yet it feels off. It’s like everyone has been exposed from their carefully cultivated hiding places where they usually reveal themselves only to those they are sure will agree.

My long hair is a dead giveaway in this Trump town that I’m not playing by the rules on purpose even as my skin color indicates that the game isn’t mine to play anyway. I’m not the only one though as others are participating in acts of defiance from mocking mask mandates on trains through quietly refusing to get vaccinated. It is their game and yet they refuse to play because this time they disagree with the rules promoting individual inconvenience for the greater good.

There are unhoused, addicted people living in a park conveniently served by the drug dealer working there. The police aren’t too interested in any of them. Small towns aren’t so small anymore. What we thought were big city problems are more commonplace. Maybe the problems so many urbanites have to deal with encroaching on these once imagined bastions of wholesomeness contributes to a certain disappointment if not cynicism? That could be a part of the eroding trust in institutions and each other. An implicit social contract has been broken.

The January 6 insurrection was billed as an effort to “stop the steal”. It was more than about the election. This political double entendres also meant to stop the taking of a way of life, a constructed political and social hegemony that guaranteed at least a slight advantage to nativists and their allies. We now know many of the insurrectionists came from political districts that experienced large demographics shifts in the last 10 years.

As the 2020 census headlines shout about the first decline in the percentage of white population in the US since 1790, the ongoing sense of loss of control, that most never really had, will continue to prop up know nothing, media born demagogues. They will profit off of every perceived slight against the mythical status quo.

The feeling in the air reminds me of the opening of the tv show “All in the Family”. Archie and Edith Bunker sit together at a slightly out of tune upright piano lamenting days gone by. I wonder how many are singing a similar song today? How toxic is it when they do?

“And you knew who you were then

girls were girls and men were men

Hair was short and skirts were long…

I don’t know just what went wrong

those were the days”

“Those were the days”

Songwriters: Charles Strouse / Lee Adams

Alabama Gulag: My Coerced Flight Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

By Curtis Price

Posted July 28, 2021


On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad  was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.

I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.

Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless,  prisoner under their control.  I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.

To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue  Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.

No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.

A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration?  Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.

I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.

It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.

I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.

At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.

I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.

I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.

Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while  demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”

At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed.  I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.

People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her.  Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.

We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.

Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won-  the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf.  The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)

On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.

On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.

The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.

I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days.  Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days  back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.

Hinterlands: Rural Detroits

“Now Open – Fireworks”

By Curtis Price

Posted July 15, 2021


Leaving the bleak, blue-collar Decatur, Alabama neighborhood known as Old Mouton, which aptly ends in a near vacant strip mall, I hit 67, the highway shunting traffic into 20, filled with the 24-7 rumble of trucks barreling toward Memphis. But by not turning on 67, I drive straight, ending instead little by little in a rural area. A few turns later, the grass grows higher and the distance between older, non-descript buildings widens. This is an area that hasn’t seen development in decades.

One of those turns leads to Old Trinity road, a narrow, worn-down, two- lane street that goes on for several miles before dead-ending in the town of Trinity. Driving along Old Trinity road, I cruise through sparsely populated, residential areas, mostly mobile homes and wooden houses that look like large shacks. The air is heavy with humidity and the smell of vegetation broiling in the mid-day sun. What is striking is the amount of decay. It seems every third house is abandoned, some buckled in.

 It reminds me of a rural Detroit. Some structures have been burnt, but most still stand, tottering like street corner drunks in knee-high weeds. Backwoods near the train tracks, lays two piles of rubble, obscured by trees and dancing shadows, the remains of older houses hastily dumped without proper burial. Were they torn down and dropped off from elsewhere? Abandoned, did they implode under their own weight in the backwoods where they formerly sat? Were they ripped apart by tornadoes? Each reason is equally plausible and the true reason obscured.

Trucks rumble through here too, from the factories at one end of Old Trinity near Woodruff.  Most factories off Woodruff are small, looking as if they might employ a few dozen to a hundred workers. Except for the Wayne’s Farm Poultry plant. Wayne’s Farm is large and a reason why, despite Alabama’s repressive anti-immigrant laws, so many Latinos have settled in Decatur. But the rest look like they’ve been there for ages. Again, no new development.

Yet a few dozen miles away, in Huntsville, lay shiny, one-story sprawling suburban industrial parks engineering advanced weapons systems with the latest technology. A gleaming new Mazda plant, rising like an industrial Phoenix out of former cornfields, is sprouting up midway between Huntsville and Decatur. Such on the local level is capitalism’s combined and uneven development. Some areas are raised and stroked while others knocked down and gutted.

Alabama, of course, is fully rooted in the globalized economy. In recent decades, the state  became a Southern site for the auto industry, with Japanese transplants scattered along the north-south central axis. Aerospace has gotten a toe-hold in the Mobile area too, with Airbus. AAA USA and VT Aerospace now embedded. Contrary to lazy stereotypes, Alabama’s union density is the highest in the Deep South, although none of the transplants and aerospace factories are. (1)

Yet as Allan Tullos notes in Alabama Getaway, “In its newly celebrated global presence, Alabama shows contradictory faces, represented through the glad-handing eagerly extended by development officials and in labor practices reminiscent of an earlier era. Effusive in offering infrastructure improvements, tax breaks, and promises of compliant labor, state officials hop from industrial recruiting trips abroad to meetings in Montgomery with representatives of governments to discuss trading relationships. Meanwhile, the Birmingham-based Drummond Company faces repeated charges of union busting, failure to protect labor leaders from murder, payments to paramilitary terrorists, and exploitation of workers in unsafe conditions at its vast, open-pit coalmining operation in near La Loma in Columbia, South America.”

Tullos wrote over a decade ago. Today, however, outside the major cities, other parts of the state – rural and depopulating – are being primed, like post-industrial versions of Third World slum scavengers, to dispose of refuse generated elsewhere.

The most notorious example of this, notorious only because it couldn’t be hidden, was the infamous “poop train.” In 2018, a train piled with millions of pounds of human excrement from New York, was forced to stop in Parrish, Alabama, after a neighboring town successfully won an injunction banning New York shit from being unloaded. Parrish, not having zoning regulations, instead hosted the “poop train” unwillingly until behind-the-scenes wrangling sent it on its journey elsewhere. The state’s attorney of Alabama described the landfill as “America’s biggest industrial pay toilet.” As a SLATE article noted, “According to the AP, it’s common for Northern states to ship their waste to rural areas in the South, and landfills on inexpensive land can make good money from the practice.”(2) How many other such landfills are sprinkled over Alabama is anyone’s guess; it’s an industry shrouded in secrecy and willed silence.

In Gadsden, a city of 40,000, in central Alabama and once the second economic powerhouse in the state after Mobile, the last remaining factory – Goodyear Rubber – which had been in the city since the 1930s – shut down, stripping the city of its major employer and tax base.  Soon afterwards, Pilgrim’s Pride, a major poultry processor, proposed Gadsden to site a rendering plant, turning foul-smelling discards from pulverized chicken flesh into pet food and other uses. Unusual for this part of the South, community opposition has been fierce, with the outcome still up in the air.

In Anniston, a majority-black city 20 minutes drive from Gadsden, rocket fuel and low-level radioactive waste from around the country gets sent for processing at what remains of the local Army base, where mustard gas and other chemical weapons captured from WWII German armies were once stored before being disposed of on site in a pre-environmental regulations era. Yet only another hour away, a new graphite factory using state-of-the-art techniques in Alexander City will refine mined graphite to power electric batteries for Montgomery’s Hyundai plant. Ruthless development tied to equally ruthless economic stripping of economically superfluous areas.

In this way, having been separated from most viable economic activity, Alabama’s hinterlands stand primed for new roles as dumps for waste from elsewhere, a phagocytoxic neo-colonialism surfaces where instead of the North exploiting the state’s raw materials, the North spits out its undesired effluvium, a trajectory possibly to be boosted by China’s clampdown on recycling Western waste.  (3) Southern states supply an attractive alternative, with cheap, plentiful land, low population densities, and capital-friendly business cultures. In such a scenario, disposable people in the rural South will have a future processing toxic discards shipped in from more prosperous locations.

Notes

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.t05.htm

2. “Poop Train From New York Stuck in Parrish Alabama.”https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/04/poop-train-from-new-york-stuck-in-parrish-alabama.html

3. “We’re Not a Dump: Poor Alabama Towns Struggle Under the Stench of Toxic Landfills.?https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/apr/15/were-not-a-dump-poor-alabama-towns-struggle-under-the-stench-of-toxic-landfills

Human Fragility: On the Suicide of a Co-Worker

By Thom Elliot

Posted June 28, 2021


After the factory closed and my dreams of a secure working future as an operating manager of an e-waste concern died, I was initially unemployed for approximately a day. In a kind of mourning, I drove around my area and applied at two places, an LED sign manufacturer and PC Server & Parts which refurbished used computers and sold them online. I worked two days at the sign manufacturer, which I enjoyed, but it only paid $10 an hour, and I was simultaneously hired at PC Server for $13.50. I felt I couldn’t responsibly turn that down, so I quit the sign manufacturer and went to work at PC Server.

The first two weeks are a short story in themselves, working next to Pancake, a rather portly blonde with a prominent but obscure Nazi symbol (the Wulfsangle) tattoo on his forearm, who was obsessed with fishing, breasts, mudding, and getting shithoused. I was moved into the inventory warehouse after telling my supervisor that shipping was “pure suffering,” and so it was to be hefting computers around instead. I worked there for two weeks in inventory, learning the ropes etc, and for the most part enjoying it, working hard tearing down computers or stowing them etc, but definitely not fitting in with the forty or so nearly identical white men. I don’t fish or play video games, so the opportunities for socializing were nonexistent. I was regarded as the alien being I am, and that was mostly fine.

On the Monday morning of my third week, there was a meeting. We all gathered in the inventory section and the supervisor said “Well, Dylan died this weekend”. Dylan, a handsome, well built, fresh faced all-American type, blonde twenty three year old who I spoke to once because he was wearing a Cannibal Corpse shirt. I found out we both were at the final Slayer concert in Michigan. There was a moment of silence, and then the supervisor asked if anyone had any words. An older guy with spiky white hair, cartoonishly large gold colored crucifix, who seemed to wear only one shirt Bikers 4 Trump (who pointedly never spoke to me), said “Well, Dylan was a good worker, never had problems with anyone…and was a good worker,” then awkward silence, someone else said almost the same thing “Dylan worked hard, and never had problems with anyone,” more awkward silence.

So after saying I didn’t know him at all really, I said my usual short existentialist rap about “You’re never too young to die, you could die today, so the time for meaningful experiences with each other is now,” the supervisor muttered that it was well said, and we all went back to work. I go back to my section and the older dude was talking to some of the others, said he knew Dylan since he was ten years old, and that it’s a shame but “at least he got to see Trump’s first term.” For the rest of the day, a lot of these guys, including Pancake, all wanted to talk to me, I think they knew I had some experience with this sort of thing.

Over cigarettes, a guy confessed his mother had jumped out of a building two weeks before, but because of some situation the funeral was that weekend, so he now had two suicide funerals in one week. That’s how I found out the story. Dylan had been out with the manager of inventory, Jake, drinking on Friday night. There was some unclear skirmish between them over a woman while they were drinking, and on the way home, Dylan had become so distraught over it, at 65mph he jumped out of the truck. Jake immediately pulled over, and to the bleeding, twitching wreck of Dylan, he gave him mouth to mouth until he died at the roadside. His life hadn’t even started yet, and was already over.

 That night, I had nightmares, I was being attacked by invisible ghosts, slashed and molested by things I couldn’t see, and later that I lost Jenny in a surreal foreign airport and couldn’t find them. I barely slept, the nightmares so vivid and inescapable. The next day, I approached a couple people and just wanted to talk, I said “well I’m definitely traumatized, had nightmares all night” and would get cut off with “I don’t want to talk about it.” That happened twice, no one wanted to talk. I quit that day, did an Irish style goodbye, meaning I didn’t say anything, just clocked out and left. No moral of the story, no edifying truth, just human fragility.

Review: “The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren”

By Curtis Price

Posted on June 11, 2021


The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren. Edited and with an introduction by Bettina Drew. University of Texas Press, 1995

In “Texas Stories,” Nelson Algren populates his hardscrabble vignettes with the flotsam and jetsam of Depression-era America; characters that drift obsessively across the desolate, windswept Texas landscape like so many sagebrushes tumbling down the gullies of a prairie ghost town.

But even though the tramps, loners, carnival hustlers, whores (not “sex workers”), illiterate Okies, and Mexican convicts on the run gathered in these 14 short stories and sketches written at different stages of Algren’s long career belong to an era long since passed, “Texas Stories” resonates with contemporary relevance.


This is because Algren, who died in 1981, blends a sharply-honed psychology with his trenchant social protest, avoiding cheap sentimentality by focusing as equally on the tragic-comic and grotesque aspects of his character’s motives as he does on the underlying economic and social wrongs that have sent them spinning to their fate.
At his best, in short stories like “Kewpie Doll,” the balance works powerfully. In “Kewpie Doll,” a mundane, descriptive account of a boisterous crowd of poverty-stricken rural townspeople pilfering a train for winter coal, yields sharply to a horrifying conclusion – the decapitation of a child lost in the crowd on the tracks as the train takes off, all the more tragic for its seeming randomness. (It’s a powerful, disturbing imagery that Algebra recycled in “Somebody in Boots,” if memory serves me right.)

Unlike most of the U.S. left, Nelson Algren wasn’t afraid to embrace the tragic sense of life, something the American South marinates in, and which finds its highest expression in the blues tradition as well as classic C&W such as Hank Williams. He scorned those who had “pink pills for social ills” (that could have been a line in a hip-hop track!), which explained why he was of the left without being in it. After a brief dalliance on the periphery of the CP in the 1930s, Algren never joined anything again, preferring to be the perpetual outsider who could speak the truth without stepping on the toes of tender, mawkish sensibilities and rigid, party-line orthodoxies common, respectively, to reformist and revolutionary milieus.

 This hard-nosed social realism is a welcome contrast to the shallow “fully automated luxury communism” found in professional-managerial class circles in coastal elite cities, toxic waste-dumps of flatulent, campus-metastasized leftism, in which this layer stokes Twitter and social-media-fed recrudescence that is the polar opposite of genuine engagement.

Linking the Southern blues tradition to radical politics, with greasy overalls and dirt-under-fingernails, will be an ongoing subject that we will return to in future essays. In the meantime, it’s well-worth remembering one of Algren’s favorite quotes, from the Russian realist writer Alexander Kuprin: “The horror is that there is no horror.”

Gambling Raid, Single-Wide

By Curtis Price

Posted May 22, 2021


I live in Decatur now, a blue-collar city of 40,000 that even its own residents describe as having “a pretty bad reputation in North Alabama for being a town with a sketchy profile and reputation.” A couple weeks ago, a SWAT team raided a single-wide being used as an illegal gambling hall not too far from me. As a neighbor who witnessed the raid told the local press, “More than five police cars with SWAT pulled up and the police had the assault-type guns It was like they were trying to catch a murderer. The people in there weren’t messing with anybody. If they want to spend their money there that’s their business. I don’t see a problem with it,” adding that he never frequented the hall because “I’m broke. I’m trying to buy some groceries and cigarettes.”

The cops seized 26 gambling machines, three firearms, marijuana, drug paraphernalia and more than $20,000 in cash.. Seventeen people were arrested. A police spokesman said,

“For the people who patronize these illegal operations, these machines are not regulated like the ones in businesses that have legal gambling operations such as those in Mississippi and Nevada, Their regulatory organizations set the minimum percentage of winnings that each machine must pay out over the life of the machine. “The machines that are in use in these illegal operations have the ability for those percentages to be changed. Therefore, the patron doesn’t have a guarantee that the machine will ever pay out at all.”

(Decatur Daily, May 9, 2021)

In a small yet perverse way, these comments show what is more and more the therapeutic ethos behind heavy-handed state intervention into private life today. In this case, the hall was raided not because it was a den of vice or deprived state coffers of money – with a few exceptions, gambling is illegal in Alabama – but from concern that customers weren’t getting . . . fair payouts. The state becomes a social worker with a club, acting from “care” and “protection” such as in misguided attempts to shut down corner liquor stores as a “public health” emergency.

But in this case, these weren’t high-rollers in BMWs trying to get their gambling jones off, just poor and working-class people trying to escape the grey monotony of life with the illusory thrill of playing games of chance where, like everything else in life under the thumb of Capital, they will lose more than they win. Now, seventeen people who can’t afford it have to pony up bail, hire lawyers, and miss work, all in the name of protecting them from themselves.

The neighbor was right. “The people in there weren’t messing with anybody. If they want to spend their money there that’s their business. I don’t see a problem with it,”

***

I must mention at this point that I’ve been to two illegal gambling halls twice in Alabama, so despite not being a gambler myself, I have first-hand experience with what goes on inside. The first time was after I came back from playing scratch-offs with an inveterate gambler across the Tennessee line at one of the legal “scratch-off shacks” designed to lure Alabama customers and separate them from their money. (He played and I soaked up the atmosphere, eventually writing an article for the old “Hard Crackers” before it was turned into “Soft Brooklyn Crumbs” after Noel Ignatiev died, an uninspired  and boring retread of the old “Left Turn” magazine that has nothing to do with Ignatiev’s original vision. ) My acquaintance insisted on stopping by a juke house for one last run. We drove up to a modest two story rancher in a mostly black working-class neighborhood in north Huntsville.

After checking in, we were led to the basement. The club basement was covered wall-to-wall with machines, including one video game, full of flashing lights and bells going off, that took up an entire wall. He still lost, which is what happens when the house stacks all the odds. But I listened to the trash-talking manager, a tough-as-nails, crew-cropped, young black lesbian fresh out of Wetumpka, the Alabama women’s prison. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer while inside and had a mastectomy. In the operating room, she begged the surgeon, “take the other one off, I don’t want it” But of course, the surgeon refused. She would have to fork over big bucks to the transgender treatment industrial-complex for that to happen.

The second time I got to see how illegal gambling houses worked up close because I knew the manager. He had set up several machines in a spare bedroom through a connection with the local black and white mafia (because low-level crime, it must be said, is probably the one most inter-racial and egalitarian pursuit in working-class America. The only color that ever counts in it is green) The machine-owners had somehow hauled in the machines without attracting neighbors’ attention, which the location of the house, set off and facing away from others, undoubtedly aided.  The mafia assured him the cops were paid –off so he had nothing to fear. Thoughtfully, they even supplied boxes of bulk snacks to sell.  Who says capitalism doesn’t work?

Well, things soon went South, pardon the pun. My intrepid entrepreneurial friend started drinking heavily, getting into arguments with customers. When the customers lost, they insisted he was somehow cheating them. He started” messin’ up” the money, which was substantial, sometimes a grand on a weekend night.  I offered to come by and hold his bank so he wouldn’t fuck it up, but my one attempt at consciously shoring up a capitalist enterprise was spurned. Deep in debt to the fried-chicken mafia, they swooped in and carted off the poker machines. Alas, my friend was not destined to become the Alabama Donald Trump.

But in watching how this gambling house worked, I saw flaws that could undermine what looked like a sweet set-up. One, as mentioned, the clients accused him of cheating them, an accusation they would never make to a casino in Las Vegas, where layers of impersonal bureaucracy – and a small army of security guards – separate owners from irate consumers. But in this setting, disgruntled customers could call the police and file anonymous complaints.  And who really knows if the mafia was paying them off? Or if some gung-ho cop decided to ignore the informal contract and make a bust anyway? (My natural suspiciousness ruins me for a life in crime, where taking risks is the name of the game.)

The second factor of concern was the number of cars that would be parked all over the front yard. That would be a sure tip-off to nosey neighbors that something was going on inside. (One gambling hall in Decatur solved that problem by setting up a phony church as a front, where excessive numbers of cars wouldn’t attract attention, a Holy Temple of the Perpetual Royal Flush perhaps.)

But unfortunately, there was no way to control the traffic flow; people showed up when they wanted to, not when you wanted them to come in discretely staggered. So that’s why it doesn’t surprise me that complaints about excess traffic were probably, in the end, the downfall of this illegal gambling hall in Decatur.

Response to Hard Crackers Tribute to Noel Ignatiev

By Pekah Wallace

Posted May 9, 2021


We can pay attention to things that beg out empathy, or indulge in personally destructive, narcissistic and attention-seeking behaviors and self-aggrandizement…

The Seventh Edition Hard Crackers Release-Party was celebrated Sunday, October 27, 2019,at Freddie’s Bar and Backroom, Brooklyn, NY. A dive of sorts, and a throwback to times and places in the Boroughs where writers like Eugene O’Neill, surrounded by some of the most motley crew, was inspired to write masterpieces. The Iceman Cometh comes to mind.

If bad weather conditions were any predictor that the event would mark its final publication of Hard Crackers, Chronicles of Every Day Life, the size of the turnout told a different story. We started out for New York plenty early, and what should have easily been a two-hour sprint from Connecticut, became four hazardous, long hours, wrestling a rainstorm out of hell. The wipers never caught a break, neither did our eyes, peeled back, as blinding heavy downpours turned to perilous flooding. At no point did we think we’d make it there. On board were two of the most important pieces of cargo entrusted to my care. Jay, my son, and Noel Ignatiev, founder and chief editor of Hard Crackers. Noel was unusually excited to celebrate yet another publication of Hard Crackers. But foremost in his thoughts was his special invited guest, James Livingston, whom he would be meeting, in person, for the first time. He trusted me to get him there, if not on time, in one piece.

By the time we arrived at the Backroom, weather conditions had just begun to open up. The event was a success, surprisingly well attended, in spite of bad weather! Livingston read from his autobiography, someone played the guitar, and Noel spoke, as the many young aspiring revolutionaries listened, transfixed. Also present were some members of the Board, John Garvey, Mike Morgan and Geert Dhondt. I also recall seeing Matthew Capri. Ignatiev sold many copies of Hard Crackers that day which meant more money for publication of the next edition, and that pleased him very much. Making tbe budget of several thousand dollars, to get each edition of Hard Crackers to press, was hard work,

However, In spite of his illness and doctors’ appointments, sometimes twice a week, Ignatiev needed to make new connections daily and nurture old ones, to assure continued flow of subscriptions to Hard Crackers. He sought and encouraged new writers, reviewed and edited all submissions to Hard Crackers, at the same, worked diligently to finish writing his novel, Acceptable Men, dormant for 20 years. Between times, he practiced his Cello, and any of a number of harmonicas he kept nearby in his desk drawer.

Early to bed and early to rise, Ignatiev maintained a strict routine, a daily constant, steady discipline. He had lost a lot of weight but remained strong and vibrant, often getting ahead of the day, he showered, shaved, dressed, to take himself and Miles for a leisurely walk. At the end of a very busy and productive day, he walked Miles again, took in an occasional movie or a tennis match, checked in on social media happenings, or chatted with a friend, as he settled in for the next 8 to 10 hours, connected to a feeding tube, and a noisy suction pump which swallowed for him. Yet, Ignatiev never complained, hopeful he would swallow again, as he looked forward to his impending corrective surgery.

Clearly, none of this was good enough for Jarrod Shanahan, a so-called comrade and disgruntled former member of the Hard Crackers Board, who, we later learned, spent countless hours begrudgingly trolling Ignatiev’s every move on social media, in an attempt to undermine Ignatiev’s integrity and position as editor in chief.

On November 9, 2019 Ignatiev passed; 13 days after the Hard Crackers Release- Party, and only seven days after arriving in Arizona to visit his grandchildren.  If death did not land the final blow, Shanahan, stabbed Ignatiev in the back, defenseless. Such cowardly act he could not have ventured on his own, without the help of members of the Hard Crackers Board, in particular, his handmaiden and partner in crime, Zhandarka Kurti, Ignatiev’s second most pernicious nemesis. I am not surprised Kurti would aid and abet placing Shanahan’s bellicose pen, front and center of the organization’s attempt to pay tribute to the work and life of Ignatiev.

On at least two occasions, Ignatiev rejected articles Shanahan submitted to Hard Crackers for publication. The first led to Ignatiev quitting the beloved magazine he founded, because of push-back form Shanahan and Kerti. With no discernable leader in place, Ignatiev resumed the role of editor in chief, on condition he hold ultimate authority to decide which articles make it into the magazine and which did not. Too much for Shanahan’s fragile ego, he quit the Board, claiming to avoid arguing with Ignatiev. Nonetheless, he continued to submit articles to Hard Crackers. His final submission bore no identifying markers authentic to Hard Crackers appeal to unite the working class of all races. It was clear to Ignatiev that Shanahan was not writing for Hard Crackers, but himself.  The article was academically obtuse, unwieldy, and its focus undecipherable. Ignatiev again rejected the article, before and after several unsuccessful attempts by other members of the Board to resuscitate it. 

It was around this time Ignatiev discovered that Kerti, unbeknown to Ignatiev, had placed in the archives one of Shanahan’s earlier articles Ignatiev had rejected. Kerti did not return Ignatiev’s call to inquire into her actions and, unceremoniously, Ignatiev removed the article from the archives, and blocked Kerti from future access to the archives.

Ignatiev died a month later. Shanahan and Kerti, unable to bring themselves to the podium at his celebratory memorial, strolled haplessly about, inseparable, claiming no pretentions or humility, conscience or remorse. Judas, a better man, would have run off and killed himself. Immediately thereafter, Kerti assumed the reins of Hard Crackers, James Murray and Curtis Price, resigned the Board, and Shanahan simultaneously resumed his position on the Board. Price went on to found Gasoline and Grits.

Whatever cheap fix Shanahan and Kerti and others may have derived from their impetuous, childish and malicious rants, to now claim themselves “revolutionaries who knew [Ignatiev] best,” is fiction, and an insult to Ignatiev and other revolutionaries everywhere. Shanahan and Kerti violated the golden rule and tried to extract special privileges from Hard Crackers for purposes of personal and professional gain. Failing to have his way, Shanahan blamed Ignatiev for his tortured ego, and set out to undermine Ignatiev’s reputation to others.

I have read the remaining submissions, including those by M. Treloar, Robert Gerst, Justine Johnson, John Strucker, John Bracey, Geert Dhondt, Cloee Cooper, Gary Fields, Don Hamerquist, Avery D’Agostino, Jay Kaspian Kang, John Garvey, and The Left Hook. While I admire Dhondt’s thoughtful inclusion of correspondence, in real time, between Ignatiev and the late Joel Olson his dear friend and comrade, as well as some excerpts from Ignatiev’s novel, Acceptable Men, Dhondt failed to assume greater liberty to countenance the very close, friendship he and his family have shared with Ignatiev over many years. Dhondt seemed to have safely avoided such personal endeavor, that would have otherwise smacked at the heart of the condescending, and hostile diatribe by Shanahan and his alliances. I view this as an opportunity missed.

A prominent, world-renowned historian and revolutionary, Ignatiev’s work speaks for itself. An anthology of his personal writings, essays, interviews, excerpts from his novels, and instructive submissions, would have best served as Tribute to his life and life’s mission.

Pekah Wallace, human rights law enforcement administrator and activist, is the surviving partner of Noel Ignatiev.

Appendix

We are attaching an article by Shanahan that Noel refused to print so readers can judge for themselves how appropriate this text was for Hard Crackers. Contrary to Kerti’s self-serving, moaning about Ignatiev’s heavy editorial hand, as anyone can see this poorly written, pompous gibberish and ad hominem sectarian attacks had no place in Hard Crackers – or any other self-respecting publication, for that matter.

Invisibility and Blindness

By Jarrod Shanahan

Beep beep beep…Since their installation in 2013, the shrill exclamation sounding day and night at Chicago Transit Authority bus stops has injected a subtle yet incessant irritation into the ordinary perturbation of waiting for a bus that may or may not be coming anytime soon. I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last, to declare this beeping a major annoyance.

Beep beep beep…Thirty times per minute.Where the fuck is my bus?It’s hot. I need not describe the heat in Chicago any more than the cold. The sun catches on a corner of the South Side bus shelter, furnishing a sliver of shade shielding all but an elbow I must today sacrifice to the risk of melanoma some decades down the line.

Beep beep beep…I struggle to hold my focus on some essential classic of critical scholarship, as the author stacks chic buzzwords likethey’re preparing full house in poker, coins needless neologisms of their own, and drops the names of their scholar friends for having first identified social phenomena experienced by hundreds of millions of people in their daily lives.

Beep beep beep…Neoliberal modalities of governance in the affective regime of the spatio-temporal metropole in the biopoliticalanthropocene, qua the biopoliticalanthropocene…Thinking back to when I first encountered sentences like this, and thought myself the hopeless inferior of their author, incapable of ever soaring to such Olympian heights, my face flushes and the page becomes a blur…

Beep beep beep BOOM! With great dramatic flair, a middle-aged black man standing three feet away from me has smashed an empty energy drink can completely flat. With great intent he rubs the aluminummedallion between his hands to inspect the thoroughness of the work. Satisfied, he paces ten steps to the periphery of the concrete. I observe, sipping Starbucks through a metal straw protruding from an otherwise plastic cup, which someone I had a crush on once assured me would spare a duck an untimely death. He reaches the corner of the concrete, where the bus station gives way to grassabutting an embattled woodland adjoining the Metra tracks. Then, with great sobriety, he hurls the disc into this woods.

Beep beep beepFor fuck’s sake!, I mutter, shaking my head conspicuously. He was standing next to a trash can to begin with!How inconsiderate can a person be?

Beep beep beep… The book is hopeless, and I’m not about to morph into Captain Planet and fight with a stranger over a singular piece of litter on a planet likely polluted beyond redemption. Instead I produce a Clif Bar, one of those candy bars for people who think they’re above candy bars. I struggle to keep chocolate off my hands and face as I devour this healthy snack in the midday heat, noting with satisfaction a seal of approval from the Rainforest Alliance on the product’s wrapper. I then promptly deposit the wrapper in a prominent garbage can, two feet from the spot where the man originally crushed the can, and to which he has now returned. I pace back to my precarious refuge from the sun, stare down the block, and note, with a heavy sigh, the absence of an oncoming bus.

“Hey…” the man asks me tentatively,“…is there a trash can there?”

I stare blankly. Having recently relocated from New York City, it has been hard adjusting to social customs of the Midwest, where apparently not everybody who engages you on the street is looking to rip you off or start a fight.

“Oh my god,” he continues, staring intently at the can “there is a trash can there!”

“Yeah, man…” is all I can muster. Is he fucking with me?

“I can’t see!” he exclaims. “Well… I can kind of see it now, that you pointed it out.”

I look into his eyes for the first time. He’s blind! The exact fucking person the beeping is meant for, calling through the darkness like a beacon in an otherwise endless sea.

“Man,” he chuckles.” I do that every day! I never knew there was a trash can there. I like my energy drink before I get on the bus. I used to carry the can with me all the way downtown to throw it away, but I didn’t want to spill it on anyone.”

I notice at once he’s not walking with a cane. How does he get around? I mumble something sufficiently convivial, as the bus approaches at last. I hear it one last time as the doors shut behind me: Beep beep beep

As the driver glides the massive two-part articulated bus gracefully through the tight concrete confines undergirding the Metra tracks and onto Lake Shore Drive, opening the emerald vista of Lake Michigan vanishing into a hazy horizon, my mind wanders to the major story that has consumed the energy of many intelligent people in my social world on this beautiful summer day. Several short videoscherry-picked from a weekend-long conference of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)have become the latest “viral” sensation, on which everybody feels the need to comment. The children of cable news have all become talking heads, fashioning their daily rations of news into spicy hot takes.

In one of these clips, a conference organizer alerts attendees to disabilities among their comrades of which the listener may be unaware – in other words, they are invisible – urging considerate treatment of those who suffer them, and listing the amenities available for people who have a difficult time navigating the environments of a loud and messy national political conference. In another, an angry speaker takes issue with the use of the word “guys” as a generic term used to mean “people,” which in addition to reproducing the stubborn linguistic tendency in English to generalize masculine nouns, can be particularly hurtful to people who struggle in their social and professional lives to not be identified as men. As my friend Rebecca Hill put it: “On the scale of annoying things at meetings, this isn’t that big a deal.” How desperate must the haters be, she added “if this is the worst thing they could dig up for a ‘gotcha’?”

It wasn’t a big deal. But it became one. These short videos were abstracted from an entire weekend of debate and served up with no explanation save for “meanwhile, at the DSA.” By all accounts, over the duration of this conference,the largest and certainly most viable leftist organization in the United States struggled with fundamental questions implied by a deepening social crisis that calls for decisive action, and for which no rival left organization seems to have a better plan. With no mention of the broader conference, theseisolated clips were shared and viewed hundreds of thousands of times. The clips originated, it seems with other leftists eager to mock the organization, but quickly gained traction within the right-wing media, where the moral panic about “political correctness” run amok has simmered for decades, stoked with great alacrity by white male professors of a certain age who blame feminism for their students refusing to sleep with themand “identity politics” for being asked to not use chauvinistic language, or losing out on a job to someone who isn’t a white man.

Once in the hands of the right, these clips were used, as always, to deride and discredit all who seek to build a society according to the principles: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.By this point, the right’s work was largely done for it: the putative leftists sharing these videos had heaped derision in nearly identical terms as the Fox News article the story eventually earned. Leftist enemies of “identity politics” worked organically with reactionaries and outright fascists to reduce the entirety of the discussion surrounding the DSA conference to the content these short clips, and reduce the project of human emancipation to a punchline.

As a denouement of this sad spectacle, the avowednational chauvinist Angela Nagel relished a softball interview on the television program of Tucker Carlson, an avowed enemy of the working class and perhaps the closest mainstream pundit to the white nationalist movement, where the two chuckled together about the idiocy of the socialist left. Nagle, who did not attend the conference, conceded entirely to Carlson defining the convention in the terms of these stray clips, and actually upped the ante by claiming “everycampaign on the left and every organization on the left” to be this way.Nagle then claimed that so-called “invisible disabilities,” meaning any disability the observer cannot immediately discern in a person, do not exist, but are simply “bourgeois narcissism,” a phrase Carlson foundparticularly funny. “I don’t think if I spent a year trying to think of a better description,” Carlson replied gleefully, “I could come up with anything more precise than that.”Nagle’s latest declaration of chauvinism, for which she still has apologists disgracing themselves, is not an isolated case, but only the most prominent case of a hearty cooperative effort by left and right wing reactionaries to mock egalitarian politics in the name of some imagined purity of “class” based organizing.

Let’s be real: Are there people here and there who weaponized fantastic claims to disability for personal gain? Yes, and sometimes that is itself a sign of serious mental health issues. Are middle-class children politicized by radical liberal theory in the comfort of classrooms often irritating, and in need of serious real world experience to temper their righteous – and thoroughly petty bourgeois – indignation? Surely. Will a massive political convention of any group lacking an authoritarian power structure attract idiosyncratic individuals and likely degenerate into a total mess? Of course! That’s partly why most of the people mocking these clips can’t put together five people to start a group of their own.But to use the most outlandish adherents of a political perspective to discredit its intent, and to misinterpret in bad faith the strivings of political organizers to build inclusive spaces, is the stuff of Fox News anti-leftist smear, not serious left analysis. In fact, it’s not much of an analysis at all.

Such smirkingridicule is the stock and trade of a new breed of “socialist” evangelists touting the politics of “class” as somehow distinct from questions of how the class is stratified, and the impact class society has on those it victimizes – whether along the lines of race, gender, dis/ability, or countless other differential experiences one must consider in order to formulate a politics worth of the name emancipatory. This project becomes particularly evil when the most common “left” response to people vocalizing the particularities of their struggles in our cruel and dehumanizing society is derisive laughter – laughter that joins the chorus of fascist derision of the project of human emancipation. 

The is nothing “leftist” about laughing in the face of somebody’s claim to harm by capitalist society. There is nothing egalitarian about claiming to know somebody’s experiences better than they do, and to dismiss them outright.Nor is arguing that the outlandish excesses of “identity politics” are a more serious issue than the problems to which these politics are meant to respond.This is the same old neoconservatism which the Nagle’s of yesteryear have been peddling for decades.The denial of the reality of diverse experiences, no matter how “invisible” they may seem to the superficial observer, is not only bad personal behavior, but a reproduction of the chauvinism that structures our class society, and keeps working people divided while Nagel’s reactionary friends like Tucker Carlson look on smirking.

Chauvinism – especially the sneering, haughty, and derisive form of it that today passes as a serious “class” perspective among a new breed of “socialist” thinkers serving up the old wine of class-reductionism in shiny new jars – has no place in a movement for human emancipation. Chauvinism begins with a willful blindness to the validity of experiences outside one’s immediate perception. It hardens when that blindness becomes a willful ignorance. And thus it becomes something truly evil.

Or, so I thought as my bus slammed to a stop at Jackson Avenue, and the man who crushed the can went tumbling onto a row of seated passengers, apologizing profusely.

A New Bureaucratic Army of Social Workers?

By James Murray

Posted April 27, 2021


William Burroughs said one time the ”interpersonal corruption,”of 1950s Little Italy or parts of Mexico was much preferable to the “institutional corruption,” that existed in 70s/80s American cities. But Burroughs was trust-fund art trash so your mileage may vary, and nowadays the system is nothing but corruption and losing legitimacy every day.

The left demanding “defund the police,” and complete “police abolition,” in a total absence of any revolutionary movement or organization, is not just sillytown phantasm of the type propagated by AOC and Omar. It is malpractice. If the police were defunded and abolished, who will keep neighborhoods and productive centers safe and secure? A new bureaucratic army of social workers? I’ve known relatively tame single moms who lived daily in more and fear and paranoia of a possible DHS visit than my gangster acquaintances experienced while involved in ongoing criminal activities. In Syria or in the U.S., no society will long suffer a deficit of social control. Someone(s) will take up the space.

I was listening to a podcast interview with J. Prince, a rap industry mogul, owner of dozens of fast-food franchises and the “mob boss” of Houston’s predominantly black city wards. 

They asked what he thought about the “Abolish the police movement,” and he answered – “It would only be possible if there were some kind of alternative organization to maintain order and protect people.”

“You think that’s possible?”

“Of course its possible.”

“How would it be done?”

“I’m not gonna talk about that in public.”

Is the left really willing to make J. Prince the de-facto police chief of half of Houston? No doubt he could do a credible job, and in many ways the situation(s) might well improve. But I doubt an epidemic love fest of white liberalism would erupt in the absence of “professional policing.” Instead of days or weeks in county jail thieves, prostitutes and drug dealers who didn’t “play by the rules,” would get baseball batted, offensive homeless camps would be forcibly removed, summary executions, that kind of thing. Like any other shantytown on earth. Would that be better than the status quo? For many folks probably, and worse for others… but don’t kid yourself about what it would entail.. .Unless the proletariat has political-military organization it doesn’t have anything. It’s certainly in no condition to be making demands….

The Air Gun

By Kwame P. Dean

April 17, 2021

We had moved from cosmopolitan, coastal Virginia to a small town in central Illinois. We moved from a modern home to the old house of my father’s childhood with its tiny rooms under roof, a fraction of the size of the rooms we had before. My room was dark all of the time as the sunlight struggled to make an impression on the dark wood and pitch of the roof. Thankfully, it all felt temporary. My refuge would once again be restored when, a few years into the future, a new house would be built to replace this one. I would again have a place suitable for reading and thinking away from everyone else. Apart from the occasional visits I allowed my younger brother, and the forced invasions of my mother when she would clean because I was too lazy or distracted to, it was my room in every sense. 

My cousin Darren was a city kid. Brought up in Chicago and then a small metropolitan area with big city problems an hour away. I liked him. He was older than me by a couple of years but never lorded that over me. He was cool, easy to make laugh and quick to smile. I think I would have been a better middle child than an older brother as playing with Darren took off the pressure and he taught me things I couldn’t find in my encyclopedias. Darren was one of six so having the chance to visit us away from his small family apartment in the projects was probably a welcome change despite the boredom. We were forced to use our imaginations to play army or cowboys appropriate to the big backyard and room to run. Oddly, we never thought to be Indians. To aid our re-enactments, we usually were satisfied with the clicks of cap guns without the caps. They still smelled like the remnants of gunpowder and carried the “bang, bang!” advantage of infinite ammunition. The only disadvantage was in the debates about who got the other first.

One time, the last time, was different. The Christmas before, I had graduated from my toy repeater rifle BB gun to an air rifle that looked like the real thing. It could fire pellets or BBs and was powerful enough to kill small animals, or so I was warned. That, and the fear of shooting a neighbor’s window gave me enough respect for it to leave it alone most of the time. Of course, I was told to never point it at someone as I could “put someone’s eye out”. I think every American boy of my generation heard that warning and most of us had never met a kid who’s eye had really gotten put out. It quickly faded into the list of “things adults say to keep us from having fun”. 

So during Darren’s visit, a rainy day meant we were forced to play inside. Not bothering my mother meant we were forced to play upstairs. Darren had a shiny, plastic replica Colt six shooter and I had my new rifle. The rifle wasn’t loaded but I had pumped it to build up the air pressure so there would be a satisfying “pfft” of air when I pulled the trigger. No “bang” for me this time. 

Playing a combination of cowboys and hide and seek, I waited in the darkest corner of my room and listened. The creaky floors announced everyone, no matter how careful, so I knew when he was coming. Darren reached the door with his six shooter at the ready. I was ready too. He burst in with a “bang” and I pulled the trigger. Darren dropped his gun and went down to one knee immediately, his hands covering his right eye. It was so convincing that I  excitedly congratulated him for his acting prowess until I saw the blood. 

Too panicked to think of anything else, I yelled for my mother as the terror set in. Normally my first instinct would be to cover up my wrong doing, as my brother can verify. But this time, there was no space in my head for any thought other than praying I hadn’t actually put Darren’s eye out. Lucky for Darren, a cut on the eyebrow was responsible for the bleeding. My mother took care of that and then immediately arranged my punishment by calling my father at work and exiling me to my room to await the carrying out of the sentence I knew I deserved. 

It was rare for my father to beat us. My mother was the usual judge, jury and executioner for the only infrequent occurrences of talking back or fighting with my brother. My dad was somber and conducted a brief interrogation though the facts were already clear. I recognized this years later when after starting my own military career, I too was trained to determine blame. I was exhausted from the fear, relief and waiting. I just wanted the inevitable to be over with as I answered his questions with tears streaming down my face more as a prequel to what was going to happen than for regret. He used his leather belt. He just took it from around his waist. There was no preordained instrument of punishment hanging around our house like my grandfather’s razor strap that he kept long after he stopped using straight razors. This was just a regular belt. My dad took off the belt slowly with a kind of ceremony to reinforce the gravity of the act. He told me why what was about to happen was going to happen. As an 11 year old, I didn’t need the explanation. This was about not doing it again and I never did.

After 16 years in the military, the extent of my weapons training was little more than target practice and simulating the “bang, bang” of my youth with blanks, a big red blank firing adapter in the muzzle of my assault rifle and laser sensors…professional laser tag, if you will. I think I’m capable of shooting someone if I’m protecting others but I don’t know. I hope I’ll never need to find out.

Interestingly enough, during military training we were told when firing blanks with our M-16 rifles not to shoot at a target who was too close. We could put someone’s eye out.