My daughter is fond of saying "We came this close," and then she holds up her thumb and forefinger about one-half inch apart, "to being White Trash." And she is absolutely right.
The funny part is that the bad gene is on the unexpected side of the family. My late father was a self-confessed asshole. He liked conflict-- he sought it out. At age 70, he picked a fight with some guy in the grocery store parking lot because the guy left his dog in the car with windows rolled up. As he aged and his driving became more random, he cut-off someone in traffic who then gave him the obligatory finger. My father chased him down, forced him off the road, and demanded that he get out of his car and fight. The other driver, realizing that he was dealing with a crazy person, gunned his car out of the ditch and fled. The stories could go on and on, but not here.
My mother, on the other hand, was the model peacemaker. Everybody loved her. They brought her pies and quilts and she made them casseroles and little painted trolls. It seemed like everyone in their little town knew her, and whenever she went out, there were happy greetings and hugs all round.
Here's the punchline: As far as I know, nobody in my father's family has ever been in jail. On the other gene, one of my mother's brothers was locked up so many times that we lost count. I remember my mom and dad driving from Gallup to Albuquerque to bail him out on at least three occasions. I was seven years old at the time. My mother's only sister was the town pump in high school and did a little night in jail for doing horrible things to her first -- maybe second-- husband. One of her brothers was a Catholic priest for 20 or so years. While in his Compton, California parish, the Bishop told him to buy a vehicle so that he could get around and visit parishioners. He tapped into the Well that is The Church and bought a Harley. It was an ElectraGlide if I remember correctly. When the Bishop found out, he suggested that a motorcycle was inappropriate and that he should get a small car instead. How does a Porsche 914 sound? The eldest son of the aforementioned pump had the potential to express the bad gene, but he narrowly avoided it. He was jailed a couple of times in high school, but he was so damn tough that the cops didn't want to deal with him. Remember, this was the 1940s in a small town in central Minnesota. There were no stun-guns or tasers, and it would just be bad form to shoot a white guy for sport. Their solution, as soon as he graduated high school, was to hire him on Friday and Saturday nights to help break up bar fights. He was good at it. This tale of the bad gene could continue into the 21st century, but let's focus.
May he rest in peace, but my cousin Mikey was put on earth to raise hell. This is, perhaps, because he was the youngest son of my aunt, or maybe it is because he never had a father who stayed around for long (given the torture), so he never gained that "moral compass" they all talk about among those who talk about it. My first memory of him has to do with the Candy Cigarettes. Back in the 1950s, a favorite treat for little kids was Candy Cigarettes. Why not? They were made out of some kind of white, mint-flavored hard candy. Of course they were shaped just like cigarettes, thus the name. And one tip was dipped in some kind of red dye-- to look "lit," you see. You could get them in plain or filtered. Nice.
We (my mother and I) visited my aunt and Mikey--- and I have no idea what city we were in--maybe Salt Lake, maybe Los Angeles. I brought the Candy Cigarettes. Somehow at age 3 or 4, I had already acquired a fear of The Mikey, and I knew I had to bring some kind of peacemaking offering. Candy Cigarettes only made sense. His mom would consume at least one pack of real cigarettes (Tareytons with the recessed filter, "I'd rather fight than switch.") during our half-day visit, so it was right that we smoke too. After all the preliminaries, Mikey and I were off to "play," and I offered the Candy Cigarettes as an ice-breaker. Rather than taking one and pantomiming smoking, savoring, and pretending to blow smoke rings, the little bastard began crunching and gobbling them by twos and threes. Everyone knows that there are only twenty in a pack. What the hell! I grabbed the little pack out of his hands. Big Mistake.
To this day, if you look at my aging face, it is clear that the tip of my nose takes a sharp hook to my right (to your left if you are following along). Thank god he hit me with the back side of the rake rather than with the teeth. I don't know for sure, but I think I know what happened to the last of the Candy Cigarettes. The rest of the morning was a little hectic for me.
My next Mikey moment came when I was about 10 or 11. By that time, Mikey and his mother were back in Brainerd, Minnesota, Gateway to Lake Country. I was living in Holbrook, Arizona, and this was an exotic trip for me. It snowed in Holbrook, but it did not stay on the ground for more than a day or two. In Holbrook, there were no frozen lakes where people drove to their ice-shantys. There were no public ice-skating rinks, nor was there hockey. My parents insisted that we had visited Brainerd when I was 2 or 3, but I apparently forgot. After visiting with my grandparents and my civilized cousins, it was time for a Mikey visit. My parents assured me that Mikey was a changed civilian. He went to Catholic School now, and he was a "good boy." No need to bring Candy Cigarettes or any other peace offering.
After the usual familial BS, Mikey and I were, once again, off to play. This time, however, the cover story was that we were going to a little neighborhood store to get cokes or hot chocolate or some damn thing. The reality was that we were going out to stalk a little neighborhood girl named Jackie, whose parents owned the little neighborhood store, and who always stopped there on her way home-- to be sure that Mikey was not following her. We hid behind some parked cars, all a big adventure for me, and waited. Sure enough, Jackie made her way to the store, hung safely for 10 or 15 minutes, and then, cautiously, looked out to be sure he wasn't around. When she broke for her house, only a block away, Mikey came out of hiding. He was fast but she had a head start. She made it to her door just as he grabbed a baseball-sized chunk of snow-encrusted ice from the gutter. She grappled with the door and got it open and got inside. And then she made the mistake of turning to sneer at him. The snow-ice missile was already on its way before she even turned, and if nothing else, Mikey had a great arm. Hit her squarely in the face. She shrieked, fell back, and scrambled to close the door completely.
Rather than showing any sign of remorse because he had just shattered this girl's nose, or, even better, turning to run, Mikey doubled over in laughter. His laugh was a harsh, raucous laugh. Think of Robert DeNiro in Goodfellas. Then think of that laugh coming out of a 10 or 11 year old kid. There were neighbors who had witnessed this assault, and a couple of them came outside and yelled some incomprehensible threats. Mikey grabbed another chunk of ice, hurled it at one of them, and then took off. It seemed in my best interest to follow, but lord he could run fast. At least the witnesses could corroborate my claim that I was just there. Watching. I wasn't one of the usual neighborhood kids. We would leave in only a few days. Perhaps I would never be identified.
Several years later, Mikey et al., moved to Phoenix. Oh good. Now he was only a four-hour drive away. And we had to go to Phoenix often, because Holbrook didn't have much in the way of stores. The Phoenix incidents swim together in a mural of strange and awful behavior. On one occasion, one parent or other thought it was a good idea to let us roam freely at the Mall (Christown, for you Phoenix fans of the early 1960s) while the grownups shopped in peace. And so we roamed, and so Mikey spotted a very pretty girl who was basically innocent and minding her own damn business. I remember clearly when he approached her, reached out gently, ran his hand down her straightened blonde pseudo-surfer hair, and said something apparently sweet. The temporarily charmed look on her face changed dramatically when he reached around and grabbed her ass and hung on for several seconds as she bucked and lurched away. Ah that DeNiro laugh again. Amazing how it echoed in the Mall.
On yet another occasion, a parent-- and I think it was my mother-- was conned into taking us to a James Bond movie at a drive-in theater. This particular drive-in theater actually had an area of out-door seating, presumably for young teens who did not want to sit in cars with their mothers. At least that's who populated the seating. Not an adult in sight, and why should there be? Nobody could actually hear the movie in teen seating; nobody was even paying attention. We left the car and headed for the teen zone, where Mikey produced a cigarette and lit up. I had not yet acquired the practice, but I admired his style. Again a pretty girl. She was seated, kind of sideways to us, and it was apparent that she was progressing nicely through puberty. Mikey said something to her. I couldn't quite make it out, but she clearly did. I didn't hear her retort either, but he clearly did, and it was obviously not an acceptance of his offer. His response was to drop his cigarette down the back of her blouse and smash it there with the palm of his hand. Imagine her delight and surprise!! And there was DeNiro again.The amazing part was that Robert DeNiro wouldn't break big in movies until 10 years later. Yet, we all recognized and cringed at the DeNiro laugh.
In the weeks and months that followed, the Mikey reports piled up. There were fights at at school and other assorted stuff including an occasion when he threw so much dirt and debris into some poor man's pool that the filter mechanism failed and required expensive replacement. There was the school bus incident when he stole a sanitary napkin from a girl who sat down beside him. No Big Deal, you say? She was wearing it at the time. The solution, recommended by the school counselor and a county social worker, was psychotherapy. And so he started going to therapy. Whoever the therapist was, he was a fool. Mikey's problem, according to the Shrink, was that Mikey needed to care about something and be responsible for it. Mikey needed a pet!
The proclamation of Pet-for-Mikey therapy came at a perfect time, if you like perfect catastrophes. Mikey's mother was a "professional" waitress. This career must have come about after she was done with her high school escapades and was cleared to handle food. Nonetheless, she worked at high-end restaurants serving food and adult beverages, and in those days this was enough to pay a mortgage and the other costs of middle class living. Think of how much we have progressed! What it really meant was that she wore a professional waitress uniform and high heels. Year after year and night after night in the high heels had ruined her feet, and some well-intentioned physician decided that the solution was to surgically remove all of her toenails. The toenail surgery coincided with the declaration of Pet-Therapy week. Perfect.
Anyone who knew better would suggest that Mikey acquire a fish or a gerbil--something that required little maintenance and that was painlessly expendable. This entire enterprise was doomed from the start, but there was no way that a fish or gerbil or bird would enter the picture. Maybe a python, but no small animal. When the day finally came, Mikey picked...ready for it? ... a 3 year old German Shepard named Princetor. I'm sure that, in his violent fantasies, he and Princetor would clear the sidewalks as the big Shepard menaced the common folk; and in a pinch, Princetor would pin some offender against the wall with teeth barred and all hackles up. Sadly, it was not to be. The beauty part was that Princetor was a sissy coward. He spent most of his time cowering and quivering under a table and didn't react well when his protective environment was challenged or changed. It took no time at all for Mikey to develop a deep hatred for the traitorous dog.
We visited soon after Pet Therapy began. One of us rang the doorbell, and we heard a phenomenal commotion erupt inside the house. This was not the commotion of a big dog hurling itself at the door and gnashing its teeth to defend its kennel and dismember some intruder. This was the commotion of my aunt screeching and cursing well beyond her normal screeching and cursing. Turns out that when the doorbell rang, Princetor would try to crawl into her lap, whether she was sitting or standing. She would fend him off with one hand while protecting her chronic companion cigarette with the other, but she could only half-fend with one hand. The outcome was that 70 or more pounds of Princetor would wind up dancing on her feet--the same feet that had only recently been liberated from their toenails and that were painful enough as is. Her shins were clawed and scratched. Her feet were hideously swollen, both from the surgery and from the repeated assaults by Princetor. Mikey was locked away in his bedroom seething with contempt for the dog. It wasn't only the doorbell that set this pas-de-deux in motion. If Mikey yelled from the other room, if the volume on the television changed when a commercial interrupted her stories, if a car backfired, there was Princetor seeking the maternal protection that never came. My aunt's screams and curses only fed the cycle with more fuel. It was clear, at least to me, that Princetor's days were counting down.
Someone, probably with good intention but maybe not, suggested that, because Pet Therapy wasn't going so well, Mikey should take up a musical instrument. Of course, the only instrument that would work with so much rage and aggression was drums. And so Mikey's mom bought him a drum set... Bass, High-Hat, Snare, and Tom. He set up in his bedroom, and he actually developed quickly into a first class noisemaker. He could play the drum part from "Wipe Out" and a couple of other pieces from Sandy Nelson's "Teen Beat." ( Go ahead and Google it.) Of course, in those small tract houses that exploded in John F. Long's West Phoenix in the 60s, there was no real insulation, no distant bedroom to convert to a music room, no basement. When he played drums, the house was filled with drums, and even the TV was drowned out. Imagine the effect on Princetor.
One day, while Mikey was away, Princetor lifted his leg and pissed on the bass drum. Lots. When he got home and discovered the crime, Mikey took Princetor to the front door holding him firmly by the collar. He doused his back with lighter fluid, struck a match, and let him go. So ends Pet Therapy.
Mikey dropped out of high school soon after but long before it became a 60s fashion. First he moved back to Minnesota to work with his older half brother, the one who cleared out bars on Fridays and Saturdays, but who had, in the interim, launched a successful construction company. Mikey couldn't deal with the structure, with the schedule, with the actual work on a day-to-day basis. So, in late 1965 or early 1966, he disappeared into the bowels of San Francisco and the last of the true hippie days. When he re-emerged four years later, he was bruised and beaten but not defeated. Somehow, despite all the skepticism, Peace and Love had defeated Rage and Violence. He had a wife with a baby on the way. He worked a straight job every day, commuting from Pasadena to downtown LA, 30 minutes each way in LA traffic. He was proud that he had never done heroin as the Haight-Ashbury fantasy crumbled. He inspired me in that sense. Me too, Mikey!
I saw him only once after he started his straight life. We had a really nice weekend together. I got to meet his wife and got to babysit so that they could have a night out.
Mikey died a few years ago. Stomach Cancer. Rather than take the 18 month sentence of horrific chemotherapy, he went surfing with his two sons and managed to live for 9. I kept his last voice mail on my machine for two years.
Maybe the bad gene isn't absolute. Maybe it only rises to express itself when we're young and generally stupid. Maybe it speaks loudly to some of us, but to me it only whispers "Go ahead, Do it."