Small-town values

The only people in our extended family to have owned and operated a restaurant are also, respectively: 1) the only one who is constitutionally unable to properly wash dishes by hand (i.e., actually get them clean); and, 2) the only one to allow rats to beshit an active food processing facility and rent-paying tenants to shit wherever and however they wanted because he failed to provide them indoor plumbing.

Why do I recacapitulate this, for lack of a better term, shit? It’s my story, too, because the shitbirds invited me into it and fucked it all up too catastrophically to disinvite me now, and there’s a perversely cathartic release in remembering that a bunch of grotesquely filthy bastards has serially endangered the public health by improperly disposing of human waste on a property whose operation I continue to fund, in reminding myself that in spite of this bullshit I still haven’t taken legal action in my capacity as an investor of record, and also I don’t shit in trash cans. Other things about my life may be in frightening disarray, but that’s a start.

More disturbingly, there are broader lessons to be learned from this clusterfuck. If small business claims that it’s being strangled by red tape, Ghomeshi-style, it might be a good idea to make sure that the small businesses in question are run by people with minimal standards of personal and corporate responsibility instead of taking everything a bunch of self-important blowhards say about their entire sector of the economy at face value. Maybe the health department really is trying to make sure that we don’t get food poisoning. On the face of it, why the hell should I trust small business as an institution when the Family Shrew and, God help us, Joe Dirtbag are how I first became personally familiar with small business? If they’re speaking for it and claiming their involvement in it as a point of pride, why should I not demand that the full force of the regulatory state be brought down on any small business that appears to be the least bit negligent or unethical? Or, to be more charitable to JD and FS, why should I not believe that they ran a more or less clean and safe restaurant only because their failure to keep it scrupulously clean would have resulted in its forced closure by county officials in a matter of months? The latter scenario, which seems to be the most accurate, concedes that they’re responsible enough to abide by common decency and minimal diligence when the regulatory state forces them into compliance; that is, that they’re filthy and derelict when left to their own devices but not unwaveringly intransigent deadbeats every time the civil authorities order their compliance with duly enacted laws governing their business conduct.

The key word there is “every time.” It was only as I was writing the last paragraph that I remembered Joe Dirtbag’s avowed membership in the tax-optional business community. That bastard’s life is a blooming onion of rediscovered immorality. His restaurant failed to account for and remit meals tax as required by municipal law, so when it got into trouble, Joe Dirtbag spit out a jumble of post-hoc justifications, all of them evasive and dishonest beyond a reasonable doubt, for lowballing the city treasury. As unethical business practices go, this was exceptionally flagrant (mofo went on the record in the local papers, accusing the city of misappropriating the tax money, as if that was a justification for tax-dodging), but even so, it’s hard to believe stories of small business as a wellspring of personal and civic virtue when one’s own exposure to small business features such a turducken of sleaze. It makes ethical behavior in any sphere of life look incidental to entrepreneurship, at best.

What inspired this repeat visit to Pot-o-Shit Friend and friends was a conversation with a restaurateur in Nevada City who asserted that none of the local homeless were destitute families with children because all of them were derelict drug users. Hearing this from a small businessman, even from one who was exceptionally gracious in his dealings with customers, uncorked the old brew of grievances that I nurse against Joe Dirtbag and the Family Shrew, in particular the ones having to do with their abuses of trust and goodwill in their capacity as entrepreneurs. Somewhat to my surprise, this semi-short retelling by way of context was so dispiriting that it killed my writing juju for most of the next three weeks, especially for subjects involving small business. (Whole Foods is big business.) There were other things going on in my life, most of them irrelevant to small business and its hostility to the poor or wherever the hell I was trying to take my screed about the prejudiced comments of this restaurateur in Nevada City.

That said, it’s probably for the best that I’ve slept on it for most of a month; hopefully I’m a bit more clearheaded as a result. The mythology of private enterprise, and of small business in particular, holds that those undertaking it are burdened by responsibilities and risks whose enormities non-entrepreneurs cannot fully grasp, and that as a consequence non-entrepreneurs should respect, nay, admire, entrepreneurs for taking on such burdens. We should, to borrow an exceptionally unctuous turn of phrase from what may be an exceptionally unctuous age, thank them for their service.

This seems at first glance like a basic courtesy, but just as many in the thank-you-for-your-service crowd live in a deep ignorance of the military that allows them to idolize it in ways that its own personnel would find stunningly foolish, reflexive respect for small business as an institution and for those undertaking it relies on the gullibility and ignorance of people who either have not had bad experiences with small businesses or have construed any such bad experiences in ways that do not blame small businessmen or their businesses. The demand that the rest of us respect small business owners assumes that the latter are consistently conscientious and morally straight. (Hey there, Chester!) It doesn’t take very many encounters with the owner-operators of ghetto corner stores to become convinced that this is an unfairly positive prejudice.

My own dealings with Joe Dirtbag and the Family Shrew, who didn’t generally seem like such bottomfeeders in their restaurant management, are powerful examples of immorality in small business. They often seemed to don entrepreneurship as one of their ostentatious identities, and when they did so they often carped about unreasonable meddling from out-of-touch government functionaries. If they had just been obnoxious in their assertion of a reasonable grievance their stance might have been justifiable, but then JD pulled the taxdodging stunt and turned the farm into a feudal manor, effectively beyond the reach of the law because no one wanted to involve The Man (until I got too fed up with it all to keep humoring this bullshit artistry).

The frank truth is that if the farm were subject to regular health and building inspections it would not be in such a state of filth and disrepair. That would be a government intrusion in the same way that the Red Bluff Police effected a brief government intrusion of the room next to mine because I had called 911 to report a likely battery in progress, followed by a brief government intrusion of my room to take an informal statement from me and quietly mention that the guys next door had been drinking. There are clear public safety and welfare interests at stake in these cases: not letting meatheads brawl in a hotel all night and risk killing one another in disputes over gentlemen’s loans (sic), not letting rodents infest food processing facilities, that kind of thing. Hearing a small businessman claim strangulation by red tape and then let rats shit all over the floor of his winery for months on end suggests that much of the opposition to regulation is motivated not by a desire for liberty and the pursuit of happiness but by a desire for codified privilege at the expense of other parties, both witting and unwitting. How do I forget that I’ve heard complaints about intrusive government from Pot-o-Shit Friend’s landlord? That’s easy: I don’t. And I probably shouldn’t.

Derelict traveling kids screwing around in nice Gold Country towns all summer are a convenient foil for diligent small business owners who are tied down by all their grunt work, whether they feel like it or not. They’re too convenient. Traveling kids and disheveled addicts are popularly representative of the homeless, to my own disadvantage, but they are not statistically representative. Traveling kids showing up in Nevada City with their dogs and their packs are a prominent annoyance, but I’d be surprised that they’re even a seasonal majority of the Nevada County homeless. There’s no way that laziness and drug addiction are the only ways to become homeless in Nevada County, which has a high cost of living and a high reliance on service-sector jobs, many of them poorly compensated, for its economy (sic, mostly). Let’s leave aside arguments that there’s more dignity in loafing around the Mother Lode while loaded (I totally didn’t spell any of that correctly on the first try) than in obsequiously catering to affluent tourists from the Bay Area, or not: there is something to be said for not doing a song and dance for a pittance just because the local Chamber of Commerce has declared tourism to be the economy of the future, and there’s something to be said for ruining the Beautiful Cookbook vibe for the overly precious, especially when this ruination can be accomplished by one’s mere day-to-day existence.

This is especially true in tourist towns that cater to visitors who are pathologically indolent, if only for the weekend: who the hell are any of them to complain that someone else is a bum for being indolent? Ad hoc remedies to this supposed problem quickly descend into equal protection violations (vagrancy laws, etc.), although not as quickly in jurisdictions as avowedly woke as Nevada County. Nevada City’s businesses seem to be mostly on their own here, left to ban large backpacks, sleeping rolls, and the like from their premises in their piecemeal effort to break up the hair clog. If the bleeding-heart liberals want to feed the vagrants, or the pigeons, it’s their personal decision, nothing that the Chamber can override in a fit of reactionary pique.

This bullshit, I assume, intensifies in the summer high season, causing me to note that ain’t none of them out picking blueberries. That’s a real economy; selling energy crystals to lace-curtain hippies is not. The trolley line has been gone since 1924, so Mr. Rogers hasn’t got a thing to dispatch to pick these crackers up. Back when the line was in service, the trolleys stopped at a place called–I swear, it’s on the maps; look it up–Town Talk. Yeah, Nevada County scares me a little bit. If anyone deserves an exemption from the town talk (TM) about lazy fuckheads who have drug problems and won’t get a job, it’s not the tourists but the more marginal bums who are too poor to work for a living. I have a bachelor’s degree from a liberal arts college, and I get into situations where I can’t afford to work for a living. That isn’t as easy to look up, but it’s no less true. As I’ve said before, some of us, we ain’t hardly touched dem shine ricebowl, and we know it. As I’ve also said, we’re all in the midst of a fourth-turning economic collapse that still hasn’t been brought to an end, professionally massaged U3 numbers notwithstanding.

Within a day of hearing from the restaurateur that there are no deserving poor among Nevada City’s homeless, I read a police blotter item in the local paper about a 911 call from a woman who told the dispatcher that her baby daddy was housing their children in a broken-down van in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Grass Valley. So, yeah, the homelessness problem doesn’t affect families with children. Glad we cleared that up. I couldn’t tell from the blotter what all was wrong with the father, meaning that I couldn’t rule out drugs, nor could I exclude the possibility that the baby momma hallucinated the circumstances, but I can say for sure that that kind of thing does happen to entire families. Traveling kids are the overtly homeless; families living in vans are the underbelly of the homelessness problem. Where the traveling kids have no shame, families going to the poorhouse which is the automobile have nothing but shame. The most deserving homeless include the most discreet, because the discretion is motivated by an intense desire not to draw negative attention. I know this personally because I’ve fucking lived it. The actual homelessness of circuit-riding hippies can only be determined on a case-by-case and week-by-week basis; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn of ones whose housing situations have been more stable than mine, but I try to bathe and change into clean clothes regularly, so appearances can be deceiving.

This may sound like a dear-hearts-and-gentle-people admonition not to judge a book by its cover, which is not my goal but whatever. If there weren’t so much ignorant prejudice–and I mean this is the most literal, specific sense–about drug users and the homeless, we’d have less trouble integrating the marginal into mainstream communities. I got the sense that the restaurateur above didn’t really know anything about drug users, like how to accurately identify them. I may be wrong, but he seemed pretty sheltered. It’s reasonable of me to trust my own experiences with tweakers, stoners, alkies, and junkies over what a prejudicial stranger living on the Whitey Rez told me about how they’re all homeless because they’re hooked on drugs. For one thing, I usually find traveling kids pretty fucking sober, and I’d rather give walking-around money to a hard case who could really use some damn drugs right now. Will he spend it on drugs? Well, that’s kind of the point, right? Get back to me after you’ve personally watched a junkie score some dope, shoot up, and stop jittering almost immediately. Yes, they should be given housing and meals, too. It’s cheaper and more humane that way than having drug users end up in emergency rooms for exposure to the elements as well as overdoses, since we all know that hospitals totally are not full of control drugs or staffed by anyone who’s ever taken a little something-something from the crash cart for a quick pick-me-up or passed a whiner the good stuff for a half hour’s peace. As my grandmother calmly rated her pain to the LPN in pursuit of Vicodin, “It’s about a four.” (Lynn Majors is a solid eleven, and that’s a clinical fact.)

No, I’m not saying that I’ma go score me some drugs, or that you should do likewise. I’ve seen people get scary fucked up on hard drugs, and I do not recommend it. But vilifying drugs and their users in a society whose combination of instability, desperation, and purposelessness so strongly encourages escapist recourse to drugs and the community of other drug users is insane. Giving addicts necessities that they can’t readily sell for drug money, like a place to live and regular free meals can at least mitigate the bad effects of drug abuse. (Who the hell would buy a stolen refrigerator or a plate of church food from some oddball hawking shit on the street?)

We can’t judge our way out of this problem when we’ve largely judged our way into it. The worship of positive law as an omnipotent fetish is for people who have not recently spent time on the Albuquerque bus system. Holla atcha cracka, ’cause it ain’t me, lawd, it ain’t me.

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