Saving face

The Joe Dirtbag situation got me agitated again tonight. My parents are planning to meet him and the Family Shrew for dinner in Napa in a couple of weeks, early in their next trip west. I’ll be traveling west separately and joining my parents for most of their trip, and since I got so riled up about Joe Dirtbag on their last trip out, my dad preemptively offered to coordinate with me so that I wouldn’t have to see him at dinner. I played my hand about as well as I could have in December. My threat to call 911 on JD at the first sign of weirdness was absolutely sincere at the time and, given my recent history with him, reasonable enough. I don’t really regret staying in the room both mornings while my parents met them for breakfast. Aside from the atrocious Boomer table manners that these meals inspire, Joe Dirtbag is out of control and I am completely at a loss to get him to treat me decently. I felt bad about standing the Family Shrew up, since she was above the fray of JD’s most recent gaslighting campaign against me, but I’m not the one who married that creep and didn’t go through with a second divorce. I appreciate her innocence in this matter, but I am not going to risk more weirdness from Joe Dirtbag as a condition of staying in touch with innocent third parties who spend their lives in his orbit.

Joe Dirtbag’s descent into white-trash thuggery has been enlightening in ways that I never hoped to be enlightened. Chronicling it is a fucking Augean Stables of the mind. For all the effort I’ve committed to documenting it and thinking it over, in these pages and elsewhere, I rarely feel close to a comprehensive panorama of the whole mess. Instead, it’s more like a shit litany on a tape that I have to rewind and fast-forward all the time because it’s just too damn long.

That said, over time certain themes have started to come into focus from the background fog of inchoate offense, disgust, anger, and despair. One of these is JD and FS’s extremely defensive campaign to present themselves and be duly respected as upstanding members of the broad middle class. This is one of the most absurd and infuriating things I’ve ever watched. The sheer narcissistic aggression of it has to be seen to be believed. Me KNOWS they do protest too much, the gentleman in particular. The Family Shrew, as I alluded to above, has simmered down about a lot of shit in the past few years. I’m often stunned anew to remember that they have free and clear title to a house with outbuildings and an ample woodlot. On the surface, that’s a respectable middle-class accomplishment for a couple getting by on low to middling salaries without significant inheritances, trusts, or gifts from family. The actual details aren’t so impressive: they bought into an up-and-coming town as early members of the California diaspora, weren’t foolish enough to fall for HELOC pitches, and rode a real estate bubble for forty years. They had the work ethic to run a restaurant, but not the vision to keep one financially afloat in changing times and an increasingly saturated market. JD told me that in the time that they were in the restaurant business, the local population increased by half and the number of restaurants by a factor of four. Do the math. And don’tcha know, Jethro, they were living in the past, a past that had them by the balls; ask not for whom the little jingly things Tull.

JD and FS ran a hippie throwback joint in a dingy physical plant with an unassuming front door. I increasingly doubt that they were upfront or on point about restaurant hygiene; it seems more likely that health inspectors had genuine, if not entirely articulable, concerns about the cleanliness of their establishment than that JD and FS successfully compartmentalized their lives into scrupulous professional hygiene at work and festering grime in their kitchen at home. When one of the two principal operators of a restaurant never leaves the shower smelling exactly clean (Joe Dirtbag) and the other is never able to hand-wash dishes so that they’re free of food detritus (the Family Shrew), it takes a powerful benefit of the doubt to believe assertions that the only thing tanking the restaurant’s health inspection scores was a hard-ass newjack inspector with no sense of discretion, or that there was never an aura of subtle filth that alienated its customers.

In earlier screeds I’ve discussed Joe Dirtbag’s public tax dispute with city hall, of which he never apprised me or my parents. That alone shows that there was a seedy underbelly to that restaurant. That said, even if I stipulate the worst plausible scenario–the tax evasion and grandstanding, some mediocre commercial hygiene, and occasional bad personnel management that I can only infer from JD and FS’s behavior in other settings–the restaurant was still a bastion of middle-class values in their lives. They consistently made payroll, as far as I know, and they weren’t constant or total tax cheats. There’s no way that place wasn’t in stark contrast with the clusterfucks that spilled over other aspects of their lives. They were semi-responsible business owner-operators at their restaurant, not raging derelicts like JD has been at the farm since at least 2009 (at a time when they were still running the restaurant).

It was bewildering and scary to be blamed for personally falling into low-class dysfunction and ill repute at times when I was around JD and FS on a regular basis, both socially and professionally, and I was trying frantically to maintain some semblance of middle-class stability in my own life while they careened into a life of shockingly low-class chaos: half-hourly domestic shouting matches, dissembling about their ability to afford home groceries, shambolic home and business finances, rent collection on illegal shanties, tenant pools with stratospheric rates of obvious mental illness and interpersonal handicaps, piles of shit proliferating everywhere, duplicity followed by financial emergencies in business dealings with relatives and friends. The baseline level of dysfunction was glaringly fucking abnormal, and because things were so dysfunctional, acute crises were always flaring up. I got used to some really crazy shit, like Joe Dirtbag yelling at the Family Shrew at the top of his lungs two or three times before they had brunch on the table. I hardly expected anything less nuts.

This was before JD had his big meltdown, the one that made me think he might throw me into a wall in a fit of rage, and I fled into unexpected homelessness for my own immediate protection. It was after that that I was thrown too deep into the farm community to keep ignoring its squalor and sleaze, as I had been more or less able to do when I was staying in JD and FS’s little guest cottage. Turning into a maniac out of the blue, running a lodger off one’s property with emotional abuse and an acutely violent demeanor, and then blaming the lodger for overreacting and punishing him by barring him from future rooming privileges is blatantly low-class behavior of the worst sort. It’s trashy as all hell, and it inevitably draws everyone exposed to it into a vortex of trash.

From a classic trailer park perspective, it made sense: I’d been lodging with assholes in an informal arrangement giving me absolutely no legally enforceable tenancy rights, they’d stirred up a drama storm, and I’d ended up out on the street because of it. (The Family Shrew’s contribution had been multiple attempts over the course of the preceding week to coerce us, as well as an absent cousin of mine whose wedding catering she was helping plan, into whole-grain fascism. This was not enough on its own to drive me away, but it was more than enough to convince me that she was fundamentally unreasonable and too actively immoral to deserve a personal explanation from me about a goddamn thing.) I knew enough about the chaos of various American underclasses to recognize that I’d effectively become an outlaw facing a housing crisis, exactly what I’d been doing my best to avoid by placating Joe Dirtbag and the Family Shrew until JD blew it by acting like he was one slight away from beating me up. I also knew that I’d left my most recent formal rental (the dump in Eureka with the paranoid ex-Army Ranger Walt Kowalski building manager) under circumstances that I couldn’t expect to explain without suing my former landlords, a truly vile bunch.

The tragic thing was that I couldn’t explain any of this to my parents, either. It felt impossible. Within five months I was itching to report Joe Dirtbag to the police for his open container DUII stunts, but that, too, was too inflammatory for my parents to face. I was living in an extremely degraded fashion that I’d long known was possible for any number of people and a fact of life for some, but that I’d never expected to personally face. Every time I tried to explain this to my parents, they shot me down. A psychologist friend of theirs who visited them that summer while I was at their place blamed me for having weak ego strength. I screwed myself over by not having a police report on file that I could copy for everyone who wondered why I was so worked up over my circumstances, but we weren’t the kind of family that called the police for things like that. It took four and a half years in all before I became so utterly distraught over Joe Dirtbag’s behavior that I bluntly told my parents that I’d call the police the moment JD got weird with me and that it was my decision alone to make.

It’s easy enough to see how it might be a problem to live at an address that the local cops know for its frequent fliers. It’s easy to see how calling 911 every time one gets dissed invites exactly the sort of chaos into one’s life that a prudent person will try to avoid. In my case, though, the chaos was already there. When I threatened to phone the Pork Board last December, I had already been around for Captain Flimflam and the overflowing shitters, the Captain’s emotionally incapacitated wife and minor stepdaughter, Mixups in my Mind, Psychotarp, Pot-o-Shit Friend and his aftermath, the rat infestations, and JD’s gaslit feud with Busboy and the cop. By that point, keeping the police out of it as a matter of principle was nothing but a unilateral handicap on me. JD had the incentive to ward off Five-Oh because he’d been up to no good, but I didn’t. I had absolutely no doubt that I’d be better off giving a cop a statement about JD’s behavior than being around while he threatened to needlessly antagonize a cop who was on his property to complete a traffic stop on a third party. That hadn’t been JD’s first high-risk outburst around a cop, either: decades earlier he had gotten himself arrested in Montana and prosecuted for dodging the draft all because he had flipped off a sheriff’s deputy for asking to see his fishing license. That had been some stupid bullshit, especially in retrospect (it was a different JD who’d skipped out on Nam), but I hadn’t been there for it, so it wasn’t directly my business. His beef with Busboy and the cop absolutely was. I wasn’t the one who’d been yelling slanderous fantasies about a random cop there. I had never wanted a fucking thing to do with that beef.

It’s dangerous to be the last person adhering to middle-class courtesies in a situation like that. When some dirty old bastard is on yelling malicious nonsense about a cop who may be within earshot on his property, it’s a bad time to worry about the propriety of making sure that shit like that doesn’t escalate. In this case, it turned out that JD had gone pigbaiting as part of a vendetta against a tenant. There are plenty of ways that such a stunt could end badly for everyone present, so it’s a terrible time to shoot the messenger. The message here, more or less, is, “he needs to cut that shit out right now,” an eminently reasonable thing to demand of a nasty blowhard behaving recklessly around an armed officer of the law.

It gets really lonely to feel like the only person who’s willing to admit that things have gone to shit. That’s what most of this bourgeois hypocrisy is at heart. I find it dismaying to listen to the downwardly mobile and those marketing to them gush about the wonders of “tiny houses,” as if they’re an improvement over not-tiny houses. That isn’t architectural minimalism, you asshole; it’s an accommodation to poverty. Joe Dirtbag and the Family Shrew live in an area with inflated purchase prices on residential real estate but modest residential rents, so it’s telling that people who are perfectly employable (and often currently employed) keep washing up on their property on the verge of homelessness and submitting to the Tobacco Road feudal manor that JD is conceited enough to present as an adequate rental community. It’s appalling that many of these people seem hellbent on euphemizing their own circumstances: Busboy and his girlfriend acting like it’s normal to pay rent to live in a short bus, Pot-o-Shit Friend walking around like a happy shlemazel in spite of his own even worse circumstances. (In the interest of accuracy, the Ragin’ Canajun became his own shlemiel AND shlemazel when he disposed of Pot-o-Shit Friend’s housewarming gift, and buddy, that ain’t soup.) That farm is so fucked up that Pot-o-Shit Friend actually looks more respectable under Major Bones’ hypothesis that he was a coprophile. God knows he wasn’t a coprophobe. It would still be all kinds of wrong, but at least it would reestablish his agency as a tenant. Without a doubt opiate abuse is more respectable than pretending to enjoy a shit sandwich every day. Word on the street is that dope can be fun.

There shouldn’t be any shame in homelessness. When push comes to shove there is shame, but anyone who tries to enforce it should be shown nothing but righteous disgust. There is a tiny population of lifestyle bums and a huge population of people whose homelessness is a matter of socioeconomic prudence or necessity, as mine has been. The first step to fixing any problem is admitting that it exists. I’m willing to air my own housing problems, so no, I don’t admire people whose response to downward mobility is to turn into projectile chickenshits.

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