My mother did not raise altruistic children. That's no mere opinion, it's a proven fact. Several years ago, my mom took a psychiatry course at a local college. That wasn't particularly unusual. She's always had an inquisitive mind. Anyway, the big final exam was based on one of the professor's own text-
books. To be more accurate, it was based on his textbook that was never published. My mom was to pick up the manuscript and make a copy at Kinko's.
She was busy?possibly raising my younger brother?and didn't get around to the copy shop. My mother wasn't prepared with the right answers at exam time. She was flunked because her test proved that she didn't know how to raise altruistic children.
I learned that story while talking with my family over the holidays. There's a lot to be learned that way. I had no idea that my parents' first house was essentially given to them by their landlord. I would have never guessed that my mother once rode a bull in a rodeo. And who knew that my father was the first white guy to stroll into Martin Luther King Jr.'s house the night of his assassination?
For that matter, who could have imagined my mother didn't raise altruistic children? That literal mountain of Christmas gifts certainly seemed to claim otherwise. Still, the professor must have known something about his work. He could have probably also explained why my parents never really had an interesting life.
My father, after all, was a successful executive. My mother spent her life as a housewife. This all began in the 50s and 60s, so it's understood that my dad was a mindless automaton. My mother was simply unfulfilled. I tried explaining this to my father a few years ago, but he insists on remembering differently. But what do you expect from the patriarchy?
So, let's assume that Prof. Kinko was correct. Perhaps that would explain why my parents and I had so much fun laughing at homeless people over the holidays. There were certainly enough of them around. Regular readers may have noticed that the bums are a recurring topic in this column. How can they not be? The media has renewed the love affair. There's nothing like an election year to get reporters obsessed with how homeless people are left out of everyone's big party.
There're seven million of them, you know. Or at least there were back in 1997, when the National Coalition for the Homeless conducted a phone survey. The number has probably tripled by now. That's why every daily paper was able to knock out a few touching profiles of poor people struggling to get by at Christmastime.
It was the biggest laff riot since Jerry Lewis directed Sammy Davis Jr. in One More Time.
My parents got to start without me. The Newnan Times-Herald?which serves their small town?had reported on a desperate couple reduced to living in their car. The woman was pregnant, and was thrilled. She had already had several miscarriages. Times were hard, however. Her boyfriend had a congenital heart defect that kept him from holding a job. Since people aren't idiots everywhere, the paper got a very unique response. Readers wrote in to say that this couple didn't deserve any sympathy.
This was practically a rebellion in the media biz. The pregnant woman finally wrote in to the paper, saying that she resented everybody thinking she was stupid. Again, this is the same pregnant woman with the boyfriend with the congenital heart defect that keeps him from working.
A few outraged New York Press readers may be thinking that people who can't work for a living deserve to have children, too. These are the same people who would be sympathetic to another recent newspaper article. It seems there's a poor couple who have to live out of the car that the woman bought a few decades ago. Then, she was a young girl dreaming of a life on the road.
Well, she got it. The poor struggling couple would have an easier time if they didn't live in a city as expensive as San Francisco?except that San Francisco has so many social programs for people who turned out unhappy with their lives on the road.
But the biggest laughs had to be imported down South. I brought along the Dec. 14 issue of the Village Voice. This was the one with a cover story titled "Homeless for the Holidays." The writers begin by stating their own admiration for the homeless. First, they salute the brave souls who try to "solicit a few coins during that daily human crunch called rush hour." That "human crunch" is more commonly known as "going to work."
The writers at the Voice must work at home as much as their pals at New York Press. We all often forget that other people make daily sacrifices to earn a living.
The Voice also salutes the homeless as "too resilient, daring, resourceful, and downright stubborn to stay willingly out of sight." Actually, the homeless aren't even stubborn enough to keep off drugs. Still, those certainly sound like stirring characteristics. It's the same kind of hippie dramatics that convinced one gullible woman to live her life on the road.
But the Voice provided a real service by letting the homeless speak for themselves. Fifty-four bums (and one "at risk") were interviewed. More accurately, they were allowed to answer five questions without any judgmental follow-up.
The singularly named Jamaica is nicely typical. Like that stupid dame in the Newnan Times-Herald, she explains that she became homeless because she "wasn't getting along with [her] family." Lots of people in the Voice survey say the same thing. Translation: their families got sick and tired of these deadbeats. If that's how the homeless get made, then let's hear it for home-grown business.
Then there're morons like "Rich," who?despite having once earned a six-figure income?mysteriously became homeless after getting laid off in 1995. Rich used to work for the government, so this must be Clinton's fault.
Rinaldo Brown, who's 36 years old, is happy to explain how he became homeless: "I went into the Air Force after high school," he explains. "When I came out, my parents said I couldn't stay with them." He doesn't have to explain what's kept him on the street for the subsequent 15 years. Hey, it's the Voice. Fill in your own assumption of institutionalized racism.
Then there're innocent people like Leon Guydon. He just "fell in with the wrong crowd." Of course, several people admit to ending up homeless because of drugs. You can imagine the Voice editors lighting their joints and making a note to expose more CIA drug-dealing.
Still, let's acknowledge a sense of comic tragedy. It resounds in the complaints of poor imbeciles who constantly identify their own problems. Consider the complaints of Arthur Smith: "As of 1998, 98% of the people who were in the [welfare] system had been there since 1960. The system hasn't worked."
That's a very believable statistic. But he's not smart enough to actually endorse change. As Arthur sees it, reform is about Giuliani wanting "all minorities out of New York."
My parents understand reform. They give an impressive amount of money to charity. They also remain conscious of how that money is spent. In contrast, scum like Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo proudly announced that the government will hand over $60 million to New York City?but the city agencies won't have any say about how the money is spent. This practically guarantees that the money will be wasted.
But don't worry, folks. It's not like the government is wasting your money. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution explained everything with a Dec. 26 headline: "Clinton Gift To Homeless: $900 Million."
That's why Hillary can't afford a place in Manhattan.
Speaking of Manhattan misery, the Voice also reminds us that more than "half a million people went hungry this year in New York City." They aren't kidding. I'm usually writing by 8 a.m., and often forget to have breakfast. Then none of the decent restaurants on my street open until 11:30. Going hungry? Hell, I'm starving.
The problem's just as bad in Atlanta. On any Sunday, it's hard to find any restaurants near the city's High Museum. I finally had to go the local Sheraton to get a decent meal. Even then, I almost lost my appetite when a television showed the cover for Time's "Person of the Century." For one horrific moment, it looked like Albert Schweitzer. Fortunately, it turned out to be Albert Einstein. At least that guy helped change the world?though Robert Oppenheimer was my personal choice.
Besides, I was off to see an exhibit from the man who truly defined the American century. Norman Rockwell got it all down on canvas. "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People" is simply a revelation for any lover of fine art. The simple reproductions we've seen over the years only begin to capture Rockwell's genius.
The original paintings reveal a new galaxy of detail. By the time you're finished looking at this great man's work, you realize that Rockwell transcended his discipline. He was also King of Cartoons and a master of film noir. Of course, that's hardly breaking news. I quickly ditched my audio tour of the exhibit because nobody needs to sit through more self-satisfied droning about how Rockwell was once unfairly dismissed. "He never made an impression on the history of art, and never will," wrote Time's Robert Hughes in a 1978 obituary. It hasn't taken long to prove Hughes wrong.
But the Rockwell exhibit was more than a chance to witness greatness. It was also a welcome respite from the media barrage that celebrated bums. Rockwell celebrates the endless struggle of great American living. Sure, the tour text was a little wonky. Some art historian really adores invoking "the feminization of America." But no amount of failed schooling can narrow Rockwell's scope.
But here's what's really interesting: The tail end of the exhibit leaves behind the Saturday Evening Post glory days, and?very briefly?looks at Rockwell's work in the 60s chronicling social movements. This is where Rockwell suddenly becomes less interesting. There's a cuteness to his images of little black girls in a changing world, but no importance. This is because Rockwell sacrifices all detail in these later works. He had already described himself as "sick of" his earlier work. That's still no reason for Rockwell to have reduced himself to an editorial cartoonist.
The problem is obvious. There's no room for detail in propaganda. Rockwell supported equal rights, which didn't leave much room for depth or debate. There's a certain warmth to this imagery, and it's even effective. But it's still sad to see Rockwell passing up the chance to tell a story.
In that same spirit, however, Rockwell wins his cultural war. His early paintings are full of brilliant small touches that capture?and subvert?all that ever made this country great. The man understood the complexity of his simple subject matter. People like those at the Village Voice, naturally, roundly and wrongly condemn this as deceptive simplicity.
Today, we see that Rockwell was also a truly great journalist. His work only suffered when he became more like the modern liberal media. In contrast to these countless insufferable portraits of the homeless, we can appreciate how Rockwell captures the real truth. His work asks questions and provides history. Good luck finding a bum who'll ever give you a straight answer.