Here they come, as old and new as the wash of time. I'm often struck by the degree to which young people try to be interchangeable– especially visually. The hippie movement was in many ways a rebellion against stultifying bourgeois values, whereupon thousands of youngsters took a radicalized stand against homogeneity by...
Dressing, talking and looking exactly like each other!
Bless their cute little hearts. It's a natural impulse in the clawing search for identity, but the fact is there's a line past which rebelling becomes conformist. When everybody's sagging their oversized pants, bragging about stealing, chewing gum in class, wearing their hats sideways, leaving shoes untied, trying drugs, exploring eating disorders and worse– as they did at my high school– the original intent behind the actions begins to lose currency.
There's a point at which sagging your Jnco's and skipping class becomes downright bourgeois (or better yet: "so boozhy"), and getting called into the principal's office becomes, to use the parlance of our times, "so basic." The truly radical thing to do is to recognize a society's structures and maximize them, maybe bend them toward something better, walking out of class with good grades and pants that actually fit. Breaking the pattern and fitting in are not supposed to be the same thing. Teenagers near and far: if getting the rebel bug out of your system involves trying really hard to be like everyone around you, please do so, but recognize you're not rebelling so much as subsuming your own identity for a group think-tank that may not actually care about you.
Here they come now, a roving pattern, a pack of young souls calculated to look strong, emotionless, threatening: vestiges of a biological survivalist impulse no longer necessary. Or at least that's what I'm thinking. It's dinnertime on a Tuesday, guys, not the Aleutian Islands or Congo River Basin.
But maybe I'm wrong, and their guarded gait is exactly what's most appropriate in the neighborhood's fading ghetto twilight. When no one's waiting at home and half-drunk dealers want your attention, maybe this is the chance to be part of something, to feel safe. Putting up walls can be a good idea when there's not enough love to go around. You want to at least look whole.
They were dressed in the shapes and colors we expect to see on this side of town. Red, stripes, laces, athletic logos, unzipped outerwear, hoods pulled up, sleeves pulled down... a many-legged beast of seven or eight pacing leisurely, life's best imitation of slow motion, crossing from the High School to take over an abandoned storefront parking lot opposite.
They took no notice of the overturned shopping carts or drained liquor bottles, or the Sheriff SUV a little ways outside their path, parked and idling in the otherwise empty lot. They took no notice...
I looked up again. One of them had broken from the formation. A young man, tall in a grey pullover hoodie and Adidas tracksuit, African-American like his friends, approached the Sheriff van alone. He waved and stood by the driver's side door; a burly white face within rolled down the window.
It happened quickly.
I couldn't hear them, but saw the voices in their body language. The young man leaning in and waving with an upward nod, extending his arm now, offering a handshake. The officer smiling in pleasant surprise, taking the proffered hand with his own, a nod and one firm shake, up and down. That was all. Then the boy walked away, catching up with his friends.
Sometimes a single spoken sentence can change a whole room. That's the effect the the young man's handshake had on the parking lot.
He made it a nice place to be.
I'll never know his precise motivations. Maybe he wanted to take the first step in emphasizing good relations with white cops. Maybe he knew the man, although based on body language that seemed unlikely. Maybe he wanted to introduce himself on friendly terms, offering a token gesture of goodwill that de-vilified both sides; or perhaps an uncomplicated but overwhelming urge to be nice, to reach out. I don't know.
The real point is that he was breaking from the pattern. His friends didn't appear into his behavior. It looked like he had to explain himself. I wonder what he said. I hope they understood about values beyond coolness, beyond the narrow confines of group mentality; notions of a positive difference, the longer term. Standing up for what you really think.
Change starts with intrepid moments like that.
*I was so inspired by the young man's hello that I later on extended the same thankful hello to the same Sheriff. It's something I've wanted to do, but I'm not brave enough. What force of personality that boy had, and what courage. I've got no excuse. In a total copycat move, I waited as long as I could and then walked over. "Nothing's going on," I reassured his mildly confused and surprised self. "I just wanted to say thanks for all the good work you do." Hopefully he was pleasantly flummoxed by the random goodwill being thrown his way, as in: two people on the same night? What gives?
You want to give them a reason to believe.