Preying on the Most Vulnerable

 

 

When I was fifteen, my first summer job was selling magazines door-to-door. Except there were no magazines. It was extortion, theft, and slavery. I never got paid, even though they told me I was their best salesman. Sleazy adults took a group of us kids who had been foolish enough to respond to their help-wanted ad to remote, all-black neighborhoods in St. Louis, where we went from house to house, offering subscriptions to magazines geared to a black audience, Ebony, Tan, Whirl, for a mere five cents a week. The profits would send a boy in their neighborhood to college. That was the sales pitch they had us memorize.

 

As way of encouragement, they kept telling me how much money I stood to make once my “orders cleared.” It turns out not only were there no magazines, but it was simple extortion. A “collector” came to their house a few hours after my visit and demanded payment up front for all the magazines they’d ordered. If they failed to pay he would go to the police.

 

It wasn’t sex trafficking, but it was trafficking, and the way such things usually work is the adults in charge take the kids far from home, house them in cheap motels, give them little freedom and no money, but reward them with pizza and soft drinks at the end of a long day. They also dish out loads of false encouragement, pie-in-the-sky promises of substantial money someday soon. The police are well aware of these operations, but have a hard time keeping track of them all. When one is shut  down, another opens in its place. There are a lot of kids hoping to land a summer job.

 

I feel like Trump and his multi-billion dollar wall are the modern version of this dilemma I once found myself in. Fortunately, I had an attentive father who advised me to quit immediately, that this was no legitimate enterprise but a scam. If it hadn’t been for his advice, I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to quit. I probably would have been taken far from home, where I would be even more vulnerable to their lies. As it was, my handlers were mad at me for bailing out.

 

I’m now five years older than my father was when he died. Who will advise our nation on how to quit Trump and his empty promises? Who will stand up to the bully who has made a career of boasting and brow-beating? Who will free the vulnerable and trusting who still hope for what was promised?

 

In the Disney cartoon Pinocchio, many boys without good parenting found themselves turned into donkeys on Donkey Island, a place that at first seemed too good to be true, and later was found to be just that.

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Bargain Hunting Through Life

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The price of things is not as important as the things themselves. If promotions drive your decision making, then you’re a victim, not a player. What seems like  freedom is bondage.

 

“Think of all the money you’ll save!” screams the advert. You have to resist that notion by summoning a quieter voice that reminds you how much more money you’ll save if you don’t buy anything at all.

 

As pastimes go, recreational shopping is a relatively expensive one, with few ancillary benefits. If you buy something you don’t immediately need, then you have to store it and find it again. For some people, that is a nearly impossible task. The fact that the purchase was totally unnecessary and driven by a general feeling of emptiness only make the situation more demoralizing.

 

So we might as well do what we really want to do with our time and resources, price be damned.

Good Luck, Non-Celebrity

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When I was in grade school, a neighbor’s family owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I envied them that amazing machine. I wanted to be able to record radio plays. They could do this whenever they liked. The father worked for a TV station, and had a Saturday morning show where they played black and white cartoons and Three Stooges shorts and Francis the Talking Mule movies and sometimes did their own skits in the studio. His son, who was my age, got to appear with his Dad in them. Now this was living!

By the time I was in college, cassette tape recorders had come into general use. Initially, they came with microphone jacks, but soon manufacturers didn’t bother with that added expense, because few people were using them. They were simply dubbing their LP’s onto cassette, using the line-in stereo jacks.

A few years earlier, in the Soviet Union, people were being arrested to recording and distributing tapes of poetry, songs, writers reading essays…anything you could voice. In Russian, this activity was called “samizdat.” The state found such activity threatening. There was no problem on our side of the world, because we just wanted to hear professionals do their thing. There was no American renaissance of radio drama or poetry readings. Nobody went to jail for sedition.

Now, thanks to the Internet and smart phones, everyone, everywhere can find an audience for audio, video, writing…there’s no gate and no gatekeeper. So are we witnessing an explosion of creativity? Not that I’ve noticed.

Most people on Facebook share memes created by others. That’s about as creative and personal as it gets. They “like” things. I, still struggling to find an audience, write blogs and link to them, write amazon kindle books and link to them, record videos as various imaginary characters…and it all adds up to nothing. I might as well be performing in front of a mirror or hollering down a drainage pipe.

Ease of access to the means of production wasn’t ever the problem. Now, the problem is nobody cares about anybody but the same few celebrities. If you’re not a celebrity actor, writer or musician, good luck finding an audience much less making a living.

Work in Progress

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This morning I took a strong pharmaceutical stimulant and will use the added energy and my newly focused attention span to write a novel which I will complete by tonight, when the drug has worn off. Now I am experiencing elation, my mood is soaring, and I can hardly type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. Yes, I must remember to tell the story of that time in Los Angeles fifty years ago when I came upon a coffee shop full of transvestites. And the altar boy story, don’t forget the one about the time I fell through the ice, or the cave in Mexico that was full of human excrement, and the monkey that broke into my room in Nicaragua. All this must be preserved and fitted neatly into a narrative!

Plot and structure do not come easily to me, but colorful details are a dime a dozen. Obviously the protagonist should be a thinly disguised version of me, and all the zany characters and outlandish happenings can easily be summoned from my memories, which now swirl about me like colorful mists.

The climax will involve a near-death experience, when I am comforted to learn that the soul persists after painlessly passing through the veil. In this novel I will experience true love, meet my soul mate, the one who was conceived with me in mind. I will be tempted by fame and fortune, but reject both in favor of more substantial and long-lasting pleasures.

As I write, I can imagine the movie that will be made. Johnny Depp can play me. But who will play me as a boy? As an old man? I can’t deal with that now, I have to keep typing.

To whom will my protagonist disclose his deepest and darkest thoughts? A sidekick. Dennis Hopper would have played him in the movie, but he’s been gone for a while now. The new American Friend. Weird little guy who is humble to the point of maybe being retarded. A good listener. He doesn’t judge. At the climax he is suddenly and unexpectedly killed in a horrific accident. “Good-bye little buddy. And thanks.”

Will any of the women who come and go throughout this story be virtuous and honest, or will they all be deviously addicted to silly dreams of soul mate romance? Will they all be in therapy, or will one reject the popular paradigm? In order to appeal to modern readers and viewers, at least one female character must prove to be strong and decisive, but there is no need to make her a romantic interest.

Oops, I’ve done it now. My thoughts are racing so far ahead that I’ve lost track of my center, my core. My monkey mind is all that I can access, and it’s chattering away like bad talk radio, like a taxi dispatcher’s radio squawking constantly even if no one is listening.

Maybe Jack Kerouac had ingested a different form of speed when he wrote “On the Road.” The continuous roll of paper that fed through his typewriter kept getting inked., but my digital diary is winding down. It sputters, and then it stops.

 

 

Orange Moon Rising Over Tak

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A hot day,  a warm night with a steady breeze from the West. Across those mountains the sun is setting behind lies the country of Burma, or Myanmar as it likes to call itself nowadays. Happy teenagers crowd around the food stalls on the banks of the river, near the foot bridge that crosses it. There’s  still a lot of dust and smoke in the year, for it hasn’t rained in  months. To this Midwesterner it feels like October, but it’s almost March. Soon, hot season will arrive. The rains won’t come until June.

 

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Me, Hold a Grudge?

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After four hours of riding the motorcycle in the heat and dust, I treated myself to a ninety-minute Thai massage at the shop near our hotel in Tak. We’re two-thirds of the way home. Time to celebrate.

The shop was cool and quiet, the lady masseuse seemed to know what she was doing. But then the client in the next bed over was one of those Thai men who are totally addicted to his cell phone. Even while getting massaged, he needed to watch an action movie on his phone, complete with explosive sounds and occasional screams.

Surely, the sweet girl working on him would suggest he turn the phone off. No such luck. She worked away, smiling placidly, while I imagined getting up, calmly talking his phone and throwing it out the window. But then I realized, he would protest, so I might as well simply climb on top of him and pummel him in the face with my fists, as rapidly and forcefully as possible. Come to think of it, I might as well strangle him for good measure, lest he summon the strength to retaliate.

This train of thought did nothing for my mental of physical state of relaxation. I think my therapist might have noticed my tension, for she said something and the man turned his phone off. I managed to will myself limp for a few minutes, and that seemed to reset my racing mind.

Only a few minutes passed before I found myself recalling the treasurer of a self-help group of which I was once a member, who calmly announced at one of our meetings that since the mother of one of our members had recently died, she authorized spending forty dollars to send flowers to the funeral. She was sure no one would object, so she hadn’t brought it up before. I remember thinking, “That’s the last donation I’ll ever make when they pass the basket.”

Then I recalled that this incident happened at least twenty years ago. Why was it still floating around in my brain?

I used to think I possessed an especially easy-going nature, not harboring grudges due my my inherent sweetness. But then I realized I still remembered the time I loaned a boy in my third-grade class a nickel. The year was 1958. We were standing with some boys our age at the local five and dime, near some gumball machines. He asked me if I could borrow a nickel. I had a nickel, and I wanted to fit in with these boys and he was a “cool kid,” good looking and popular. His father had a good business. My father was unemployed. We had recently moved to town, hoping he would find work. So, I said “OK, I’ll lend you this nickel, but you have to promise to pay it back.”

He laughed and said “of course I will.”

The next week, at the same spot, I asked him to return my nickel. He sneered and barked scornfully, “it was only a nickel!” The other kids laughed. I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. I remember where the others were standing, the way the light came into the store through the automatic doors out onto the street. Something calcified inside me at that moment, something that I have used as justification for harboring that resentment for sixty years.

No wonder I find it hard to relax sometimes.

Politics Isn’t Easy, But It Beats Dictatorship

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I remember when the tide changed. It was Reagan who first started making fun of liberal politicians and their well-intentioned meddling. They didn’t have the wisdom to let the marketplace self-correct. When political ads were approved by the FCC, the airwaves were flooded by pre-commercials and the voice-overs always accused the candidate for the other side of being a “politician.”

 

Yes, politics is difficult because self-governance is work. Far easier to simply let an enlightened despot make decisions for you. The problem lies in the despots who want the job. Few are enlightened. Bullies and thugs abound.

 

The ancient Greeks thought politics was the duty of every free man. It still is. Maybe most men no longer care to be free because it’s too much work.