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Island Living Pt. II (No Good Deed Goes Unpunished)

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Island Living Pt. II (No Good Deed Goes Unpunished)

On Saturday, my friend Rich was helping me hang the new TV in my garage, which I've turned into a pretty sweet health club--Powertek bench and shoulder press, V5 Hoist home gym, Lifefitness pulley system, elliptical, to go along with the speed and heavy bag, jump ropes and resistance tools, the benches, bars, adjustable dumbbells and exercise bike.  Now you can add to that a flat screen TV.  Welcome to Club Joe. No membership dues.  No waiting for machines.  And best of all?  Come the New Year, you will not have to wait while the droves of Revolutionaries show up for the first two weeks of January, eating their carb-laden protein bars, clogging up the good machines while they talk about their new found commitment, before disappearing into the overcrowded parking lot, never to be seen again.

Ah, fitness in America.

Whatever the skill or talent is called that allows people to do things like installing a swivel mount for a television or putting together a four-post bed, I don't have it.  It takes me three hours to hang drapes.  Last time I tried to assemble a desk, I ended up wood-glueing the goddamn thing together.  You need a souffle or poem written? I'm your man.  You need your car fixed, go somewhere else.

So Rich was helping (i.e., doing it for me).  You might remember Rich from Friday's guest writer, George Murphy, and his story (, which detailed my past life as a raging douche bag (before ending with my using my powers only for good these days).  Or you just might know Rich because you lived in Berlin, since he and I have been friends since we were five.

We'd gone running in the morning, like we do every Saturday morning.  Which is always dangerous.  Not because of the arthritic hip.  But because everyone who runs runs the risk of looking like one of these guys.

You see 'em every time you run.  You think you are not one of them.  But you never know.

Justine works weekends, so she wasn't home.  It was just Rich, Holden, and I.  Rich is Holden's godfather, and today Holden must've realized that this is the guy who will be slipping $10 in his birthday cards for the next 15 years, so he was all over him.  Holden's newest word is "up."  As in "pick me..."  Putting the TV mount together took most of the day, with Rich doing most of the work.  This isn't unlike when Rich and I worked together as ice cream men, driving the town truck.  Berlin wasn't the kind of town where you really needed an ice cream truck, with neighborhoods (back then) a couple miles apart and the public pools with their own ice cream.  Anyway, the ice cream boss famously once told the new kid driving the truck, "You deliver ice cream like Rich.  Not like Joe." When we were ice cream men (at 16), Rich and I thought that, it'd be a great way to meet girls.  But Rich still did his job.  All I cared cared about were the teeny weeney bikinis (Oh, Nicky Bozzuto and your giant breasts, where have you gone?)

While Rich did the hard labor, I tried to distract the kid, who was starting to get sick. The only way I could distract him was to let him ride on my shoulders as I pranced around the house like a horse.  It makes Holden happy.  Holden gets what he wants.

I was upstairs when the doorbell rang, and it took me a minute to put Holden down, and by then Rich had opened the door and was explaining he just worked here. And I knew who it was before I came outside.

If you were around last week, you probably read Pt. I of this (  There are few sayings I love as much as "no good deed goes unpunished."  Like fucking clockwork.  As soon as I wrote that check for that kid and his bogus company last week, I knew I'd regret it.  Not the money part. But I figured the same kid would come back and ask for me to buy more "not donations," or worse that he'd tell his buddies with whom he worked this racket that I was an easy mark.

"You bought the magazines," I heard the kid say to Rich.

"I already told you, I don't live here," Rich said.

"But you know the guy who bought the magazines, right?"

I opened the door and told Rich I'd handle it.

The kid was like his friend from last week.  Inner-city, Richmond, not from this neighborhood (am I saying that sensitively enough?).

"Yo," he said, "I'm not hear for no donations."  And he held up the clipboard, pointing to where it said, in bold print, "No Donations."  "I'm not asking for a handout.  I'm just trying to get a leg up."

I explained that his friend was here last week, and that I bought some magazines from him.

"How much you give him?"

"You don't need to worry about that."

The kid who'd come here the other night, I liked him, because I believed him, necessarily.  Not about his magazine racket.  I'm not an idiot.  But when he told me he was an ex-addict, trying to get ahead, down on his luck and hurting, I knew he was telling the truth.  I'm not saying he was a "good" guy, just that I felt where he was coming from, sensed a goodness about him.  Maybe he was playing me; I don't think so.  Having lived the way I did, I am pretty good about that sort of thing.  This kid on Saturday was a punk.

After I repeatedly explained I wasn't going to buy anything from him (not even sure what he was selling, something to do with soap), he started to get nasty, get a little street, if you know what I mean.

"When you work out," he said, "You two make sure you get yours, right?"  He sneered.

I'm not even sure what that was supposed to me.  He'd seen the equipment, but I don't know if he was referring to Rich and me.  I assume he was.  He'd also probably heard Holden crying, and if this was some esoteric statement or whatever, the dad in me wasn't taking a chance, and the mere fact that he might've been bringing my son into this somehow, made me step in, make it clear just how much bigger I was than he.

"I'm not passing judgment," I said to the kid.  "I wish you well.  But you need to leave."

"I ain't doin' nothin' wrong," the kid said.  "I can walk around anywhere I want."

We both knew what I was saying.

"Sure," I said.  "You can.  But I'm telling you, you keep going door to door in this neighborhood, someone will call the cops."

"OK," the kid said, backing down.  "I'll leave you alone."

"I'm not saying I'm going to call the cops," I said, trying to make it clear, "just that this isn't the kind of neighborhood to do what you're doing."

"You got yours," the kid said, motioning up at my big house.  "I just want mine."

As if he, or anyone else, knows what I had to go through to get this house.

I wished him luck again.  And he walked away.

I talked to Rich about it.  "There's no reason for me to call the cops, is there?"  Rich shook his head no.  "The kid isn't doing anything but trying to sell crap."

I was trying to convince myself, because this kid, unlike his friend last week, gave me a bad feeling.  Of course, there is always the deeper fear that I've become...that guy.

When I was a kid, I remember driving with friends and their parents around Berlin, which is as lily-white as you'll ever find, and anytime we'd have to go into New Britain, which had something Berlin had virtually none of, minorities, seeing how scared the grown-ups would get.  This was in the day before auto locks.  The locks used to be on top of the door, like a big spike. I better just include a picture for the iPhone generation.

Anytime parents drove through New Britain and saw a minority, they would make like they were stretching, and lean their elbow to rest by the car window, a process which would, entirely by coincidence I'm sure, also lock the door.  Every fucking time.  We all saw it, the kids I went to school with, and it was hysterical as we got older, into high school, going off to college, because at that age there is no racial division, not really.  Maybe a few jackwagon dillweeds are prejudice, but to most of the people I hung out with, the way our parents acted when it came to race and property values was pathetic.  Yet, there I was on Saturday, wondering, How did I get here?

It really bothered me.  Even thinking about that shit.  Had I been threatened?  Not really.  This kid's friend had simply told him I'd gone for it, and given the lousy success rate these door-to-door sales have, the kid was pressing his luck.  And when I made it clear that I wasn't giving anything, he got a little desperate, pushed a little too hard.  And I wasn't issuing an idle threat.  I knew someone on this block, whose median age is about 104 and white, was going to call the cops.  I was trying to give him a break.  It sucks that because of his skin color and economic situation he was going to invite police attention.  I've made it clear before, I am not a fan of the police.  Seen too much fucked-up shit take place with me and mine.  Back when I was using.  Back when I was scumbag, a lowlife fuckball.  A criminal doing bad things.  Even though I've returned to respectable, that grudge has been slow to soften.

But I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a slight relief when, as I was walking Rich out to his truck, I saw the El Cerrito Police Force prowling my street.  It wasn't just one car.  They hauled out the big, bruising units.  They found the kid and a buddy at the end of the block, in the cul-de-sac.  They flipped on their lights and and escorted the foreign element from my gated island world.

And with that relief came the shame for feeling that relief, for having it so good, for being so blessed in a world of so much suffering.  And, yeah, I mutherfucking mean it.  This shit eats me up.  Always will.  The tattoos, the muscles, the rock 'n' roll, the temper, they don't mean nothing.  I am a bleeding heart, through and through.  I keep the walls high and tight, trying not to peer down or around them, because it breaks my fucking heart.  I don't allow myself to consider the reality of the way so many live their lives, because if I did I'd just end up sitting around singing Brett Dennen songs.

I know my wife will say I need to volunteer at a Needle Exchange or think this is an invitation for her to push fostering a child (which I've agreed to. As long as she is Korean, extremely attractive, and a week shy of her 18th birthday).  I started to get my certification to be a drug and alcohol counselor. Depressed the fuck out of me. Aside from the large percentage who were still using, the classes only reminded me of a world I want to forget.  I watch this Occupy shit, see Richmond at the foot of the hill when we pass through on our way to Kaiser, and it all makes me sick.  I want to do more to help people who were like me.  Not sure how, exactly.  Except to give the occasional ex-addict I deem worthy some money.  At least I know the person who is getting it, as opposed to donating to some faceless non-profit, paying a bunch of Greenpeace dropout's salaries, before what's left is distributed in the form of tuna fish sandwiches to the masses.

I don't know, man.  I don't have an answer to any of it.  And my sympathy is worth about the same as that guy's prejudice and hatred when it comes down to it.  Words without actions and all.


After Rich left, I played with Holden in the new gym.  He likes hanging out down there with me.  He thinks the elliptical step is a seat on a giant ride.  Last week, I bought him his own miniature heavy bag.  Little gloves too.  Hung it right next to mine.  Of course, he doesn't want to hit the little bag; he wants to hit the big bag, like daddy. And he will.  He's going have all the chances to do that and more. From here on out, everything I do is to make sure that happens.  And I hope he'll find some better answers than I have.

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At November 14, 2011 at 12:49 PM , Blogger Justine said...

good post but... as someone who has spent most of her career working in nonprofits (and who's married to you) I wish you wouldn't speak so disparagingly about them. Really it does more good over all to helping people and creating a better world for your son to donate to a nonproft. These individual acts might make you feel better about yourself but the nonprofits create sustainable lasting change for more people. A small donation can have a ripple effect (even a $20 donation from a lot of people can help donations get larger donations from corporations or foundations). Most of these "green peace drop outs" as you so nice put it, are actually passionate, hard working individuals who over all could be making a lot more money in the for-profit sector but instead chose a work that has a greater benefit to society.
If you want to make a difference and give back. Why don't we work together to find out how to make the biggest difference with the resources we have.
P.S. We are going to foster kids, eventually, not for awhile but its something I believe we'd be really good at.

At November 14, 2011 at 12:51 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...



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