Thursday, September 19, 2013

***Taking A Turn As Neighborhood Historian-Tales From A 1950s Working-Class Neighborhood – “…and the tin pan bended, and the story ended”

Markin comment:

The title of this commentary takes its name from what turned out to be the late folksinger and folk historian Dave Van Rock’s last album. This seems as an appropriate title as any for the twists and turns of this series. Despite Van Rock’s alliterative title this is really part of the very prosaic working class story that I have written about in several earlier commentaries in this space. As I have mentioned in them, this space is usually devoted to ‘high’ politics and the personal is usually limited to some experience of mine that has a direct political point. Sometimes, however, a story is so compelling and makes the point in such a poignant manner that no political palaver is necessary. This is the fifth and final part of what, as I will relate in the next paragraph, has now turned into a saga of the fate of a working class family from my old neighborhood. Let me finish the tale.

In part three of this story, History and Class Consciousness (hereafter, History), about the fate of my childhood friend Kenny’s father I mentioned that if I had time I would try to find out the fates of his two long missing older brothers who had not been heard from by the family in over thirty years. I have become so intrigued by this family’s story that I have made time to dig deeper into it. In Markin Takes a Turn as Neighborhood Historian (hereafter, Markin) I related how I found James, Jr. the older brother and told his story. I note here that when I interviewed James, Jr. he said that he would put me in contact with Francis. He has kept his word. Here to complete the saga I will end with the younger brother Francis’s story.

To refresh the story for those who make have not read the previous parts let me summarize. Probably, in the near future I will rewrite this whole thing as one story to avoid the somewhat confusing repetitions inherent in presenting each part in piecemeal fashion. For now though, dear reader, bear with me. In previous commentaries I have mentioned that I had then recently (May 2007) returned to the old working class neighborhood where I grew up after a very long absence. I also mentioned that maybe it was age, maybe it was memory, maybe it was the need at this late date to gain a sense of roots but that return has haunted me ever since. I have gone back a few times since last May to hear more of what had happened to those in the old neighborhood from a woman who continues to live there and had related the above stories to me. The first story was about the fate of my childhood friend Kenny. A second in January 2008 recounted the fate of Kenny’s mother, Margaret, and History, written in February 2008, mentioned above, presented the story of Kenny’s father, James. (Check the archives for these three stories.)

My own family started life in the housing projects, at that time not the notorious hell holes of crime and deprivation that they later became but still a mark of being low, very low, on the social ladder at a time when others were heading to the Valhalla of the newly emerging suburbs. By clawing and scratching my parents saved enough money to buy an extremely modest single-family house. The house was in a neighborhood that was, and is, one of those old working class neighborhoods where the houses are small, cramped and seedy, the leavings of those who have moved on to bigger and better things. The neighborhood nevertheless reflected the desire of the working poor in the 1950’s, my parents and others including Kenny’s parents, to own their own homes and not be shunted off to decrepit apartments or dilapidated housing projects, the fate of those just below them on the social ladder. That is where I met Kenny and through him his family, including his mother Margaret, his father James and his two brothers, James, Jr. and Francis.

In my teens I had lost track of Kenny who as he reached maturity took the death of a friend who died in Vietnam very hard. The early details of his behavior changes are rather sketchy but they may have involved illegal drug use. Apparently, with drugs and therapy, there were periods of calm but for over three decades poor Kenny struggled with his inner demons. In the end the demons won and he died a few years ago while in a mental hospital.

Needless to say Kenny’s problems were well beyond his mother and father’s ability to comprehend or control. His father, like mine, had a limited education, few marketable skills and meager work prospects. Thus, there were no private resources for Kenny and he and they were thus consigned to public institutionalization schemes. The shame of this, among other things, led to his father’s early death many, many years ago in the mid-1980s. His mother, Margaret died in January 2008.

Kenny’s woes, as I found out this January, were only part of this sad story about the fate of Margaret and James' sons. The two older brothers, James, Jr. and Francis, were in and out of trouble or one sort or another and were not around the neighborhood much. My neighborhood historian mentioned in January that at some point both sons had dropped out of sight and had not been seen by their mother for over thirty years. They are presumed to be dead or that is the story Margaret told my historian. Francis’ story now comes into focus.

James was somewhat mysterious in his agreement to get me in touch with Francis. I thus expected that Francis’s story would be similar (or even more depressing than his). That was entirely not the case. Apparently Francis is to be considered the success of the family. I mentioned that I found James to be smart if more on the street side than academically. Well, Francis seemed to have traversed both sides. I interviewed him in a law office in Boston, his law office. Somewhere along the way he figured out faster than James that unless your heart is totally into it a life of crime just takes too much energy. But here is the odd part. He had total recall of me as a kid, including my politics. He even remembered something that I had not-he was my captain in canvassing for John F. Kennedy for President in 1960. I am not sworn to secrecy but I should add that today he is a fairly influential member of the Massachusetts Democratic Party establishment.

That poses two questions. The first and obvious one posed when I interviewed James about the question that must be on the reader’s mind, as it surely was on mine. What in this biography warrants going underground from one’s family for over thirty years? His answer was that unless he got a fresh start he would have wound up like his brother James.Just flat out got tired of taking a psychological beating every time his mother Margaret berated him in his early youth for some seemingly trivial mistake. To not have to deal with that as he started to get into real trouble he just walked away from his family. His rationale was that if they did not know about it then he was doing them a favor. Strange reasoning, perhaps. However, I too know, and perhaps you do also, the wrath of an Irish mother when she gets into the shaming ritual. I faced that more than one time myself. It is not pretty. James may have stayed away too long and, in the end, broke his father’s heart, but there is nothing absurd about his response. We all face our demons in our own particular ways.

The second question is why if he were so political and knowledgeable did he become a class traitor. As satted before he knew that I had gone ‘commie’ so that was no big deal but here is whee the cautionary tale for working class kids comes in- he saw his best chance of advancement for himself by working his way up the Democratic Party hierarchy. This, my friends, is ultimately the problem we have to deal with if we are every to get our own workers party with some bite. The Francis’s of the American political landscape can be had but not until we have leaverage.

I commented, off-handedly, in History that at a point where I had been successful in locating the two older brothers I would I will surely need the literary talents of someone like James T. Farrell in his Studs Lonigan trilogy for guidance. That has proven to not be necessary as this is a most prosaic story. What this story really calls for is the skills of someone like the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, or better yet a Lenin,to try to analyze and to generalize how a couple of fairly smart working class kids turned the wrong way and in the end turned inward rather than become class fighters. It needs an appraisal of how thetransmission belt of working class political consciousness that broke down in our fathers’generation (the so-called “greatest generation” that survived the Great Depression and fought World War II) remains broken in the baby-boomer generation (their and my generation, the generation of ’68). There is thus something of a ‘lost’ generation that is not there now that today’s youth look like they are ready to ‘storm heaven’.

As I have said in the previous commentaries on this story I am a working class politician.That is the great legacy that my parents left me, intentionally or not. As I have asked previously in relating the other parts of the story -are there any great political lessons to be learned here? No, I do not think so but this family’s saga of turning in on itself in the absence of some greater purpose and solution goes a long way to explaining why down at the base of society we have never had as much as nibble of independent working class political consciousness expressed in this country.


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