Monday, June 24, 2013

The Non-Conformist

Having grown up in a family that was largely non-conformist and also very much a pariah in terms of polite society it's often hard for me to judge what it "normal." I just have no real understanding or comfort in relation to societal norms. 

My mother protested and debated with every single black minister to the point that we never went to church due to her crusade against black male oppression over black women. My grandfather's role as a prominent professional gambler meant that even though my grandmother was uber-stylish and a social butterfly by nature she wasn't welcome in the "respectable" parlors of other ladies (who were also jealous because men admired her beauty). Prechers would craft impromptu speeches on the evils of gambling, drinking, fornicating and related sinning as my family sat in the pews. My mother taught us from a very young how to "make our own fun". And it hurts to be excluded but the very same people who did not always welcome us were often to be seen whooping it up for joy and laughter in our midst. Sooner or later most everyone made their way into my grandfather's different establishments, restaurants, gambling houses, and bodgas.

It wasn't until I went away from home where no one knew me or my family that I got a glimpse of how other people lived. It was so hopelessly and godawful boring. And by little bits as I made friends whom I could trust and who became, to me, family I would let people inside and tell them about where I came from. Who my people were, as it was phrased at home. And no one seemed to care or judge me. Certianly no one shunned. Most people thought it was cool to have a gangster grandfather and others found it so unfamiliar a background and me so "normal" seeming that they forgot about it. As a child I carried around the knowledge of my family's business as a secret and worried what would happen should I be "outed". It was a relief to get away from home and to feel free to out discover that it was something that made me unique.

True I often had to explain that no; people did not get killed; that my grandfather strictly forbid drug dealing and that unlike my "normal" friends who grew up in New York I had never been the least effected by the growing culture of crack cocaine. Frankly I was much safer and secure and isolated as the grand-daughter of a gangster than they were just as normal citizens. I had to explain that things were frankly far more tame than a Scorsese film: all that killing and flossing and profiling and druggie stuff is simply bad for business. 

My grandfather was a businessman and he lived like any other serious businessman: he knew politicians and lobbied to keep his establishments running; he sat in on banking breakfasts that were only open to bank customers who had very large accounts; he worked six and a half days a week literally from sunup to sundown. Most of all, he could be stingier than the most miserly miser; he was famous for his parsimonious ways which could be infuriating for a man who spent all his time at a very expensive and beautiful polished wood desk counting cash. Endlessly counting the cash that flowed into his businesses at the rate of thousands and thousands of dollars per week. My mother joked that it must be the ink on the cotton US currency that was his secret to his longevity. He made it his mission to personally count practically every dollar bill that he earned. It is not true that money is the root of all evil; but evil is the root of all money for sure. No one who lives and breathes money with such obsessiveness can leave much room for softness of heart at least not him. 

However he did play a role as a sort of social work agency to the inner city community. People came to him for help such as when a kids' baseball team from a poor school could not afford uniforms. Every Christmas and Thanksgiving he held a turkey giveaway. Hundreds of turkeys. In the summer, in June if I remember he held a barbecue picnic at one of the parks and anyone was welcome to come and eat and socialize. It was a huge event with the best soul food. The cooks from his soul food restaurant and tavern did the cooking. People having trouble affording the burial of a loved one might ask for help. He provided food, cash, assistance, loans and employment when legit society turned its back on people who had nothing to discredit them other than poverty. Like the social agencies of the 19th and early 20th centuries which helped new Southern migrants adjust to the Northern urban communities Grandpoppy provided help where it was needed.

He was not Robin Hood and I do not wish to give any misleading or falsely nostalgic imagery to that effect but he was an active member of his community. He did not conform to social standards but at the same time it is hard to see how he was any different from those standards and norms. I think that at bottom most non-conformists are like that; they function outside the boundaries and curious on-lookers get quite the thrill to bravely venture over to see what it is that everyone is talking about. People who do forbidden things are a bit scary, a little bit nerve wracking. Why won't they just do what they are supposed to do? But the dispassionate observer detects that at bottom the non-conformist doesn't hate society, he just chooses to live separate from people who blindly march to the beat without yet refuse to read the music.

 My grandfather was very astute and he was very concerned for his daughter's and grand-children's fates not wanting us to be excluded unfairly as punishment for his own choices. And sometime that did happen. But kookiness is at least a little bit genetic even as it is a choice: each generation has turned out non-conformist traits that become major personality quirks. It is difficult to explain to a child why some things are different at home than at school (assuming of course that you sent them to a school among 'different' folk). It's frustrating as hell to be a young child in a non-conformist family when all you want is to fit in. 

 But if your family's genes and systematic social rejection is successful you will one day accept a very significant truth which can be the foundation of a very happy and individualistic life: those other people? those "normal" types are about as unimaginative boring as it gets. Do you want to be a visionless sleep-walking zombie?

No? Well then come on over to the other side.....Once you see the view from here you'll never be the same. I think I've learned something that my grandfather may have been unaware of because the right to creativity and freedom is priceless. It is beyond any amount of money or any manner of social recognition. But perhaps that view of the un-necessity of materialism is my way of not conforming to his example. And I'm okay with that.

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