The Buck Stops Here - "People don't change"

“I’m like Saddam Hussein. I only trust people from my village.” --Dave Thomas, of Pere Ubu.

What doesn’t change is the will to change, the poet Charles Olson notes. We may go to school, leave town, better ourselves. We cite Shakespeare not Jerry Springer. We drink Pilsener Urquell not Genny. The cleaning woman does work we used to do. People don’t change, Olson adds. They only stand more revealed. We may cross town, but we never leave our street. It is, at the last, the one thing if we do not trust marks us, and continues to mark us.

Lakewood is a city of villages, and education, money or success may permit us to cross over from one village to another, even if we never leave the one we left behind. In Herbert Gold’s novel about Lakewood, Therefore Be Bold, Dan Berman, editor of The High Times, dates Eva Masters, a girl from one of the established families of Lakewood. Her father does not trust Berman, a first-generation Jew, and when he hears Berman is going to Columbia University after high school, comments, “Don’t like the quiet life here, do you? Some families five generations, some more. Six ourselves....Maybe you ought to go to New York, eh? Feel at home there? A one-generation city?

In Leaving Las Vegas, John O’Brien (Lakewood Class of 1978) describes how his protagonist, Ben, is forced by his mother to play outside in summer with other kids when he preferred to stay in his room and play by himself. As much as anything else, it explains why he left his small, midwestern town for Los Angeles and Las Vegas to find those like himself who also could not live in their villages and had to find one another where they could. Blood may be thicker than water, but sometimes it is water we need to stay alive.

Like Gold and O’Brien, I left Lakewood. In the Sixties, I was arrested while teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit, and it made national news. The journalism teacher at Lakewood High School I revered while I wrote for The High Times took the news and ran with it. I was a druggie. (John Lennon did a by-now famous concert in Ann Arbor to draw attention to the injustice of the imprisonment of John Sinclair, who had been arrested with me.) Mine had been a false arrest, but it made no difference. That’s what happened to kids from my neighborhood the teacher believed.

How do we understand – trust – those who are not from our village? James Clifford explains the various methods anthropologists use to study other cultures. You may understand what you see from your own perspective, as if you landed on an unexpectedly populated Mars and had to understand what you saw from the perspective of Earth (as Eva Masters’s father does). You may read what has been written about the culture to be studied to give you data, signposts and guidelines. You may choose someone from culture to explain things to you. (How do you know who to choose, who can be trusted?) You may become part of that culture – become one of them – after living in it – for how long? – ten years, twenty, thirty.

In some way the problems of the world are obvious. We trust only those from our village. The difficulty is our village is no longer self-contained, those we meet not from our village. This may force us to seek out those who circumstances, choice, inclination or fate are our own. We only stand more revealed, Olson says, and if that means we come to core, whether we stay in our village or not, it also means we never leave it.
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Volume 3, Issue 3, Posted 12:12 AM, 01.27.07