My mother was always worried about what other people would think, so ‘Don’t tell family secrets’ was right up there with ‘Don’t talk to strangers’, ‘Walk on the left side of the road’, and ‘Come home right after school’.
I had no idea what she was talking about. What secrets? As far as I could see, our family was as normal and run of the mill as any in our neighborhood. My parents skirmished, but fought behind closed doors. My sister and I hid in the laundry closet when my parents had one of their tiffs, but all we could hear were muffled voices. When it was all quiet in the kitchen, we went downstairs to find out who had won. My parents usually fought to a standoff, so it was hard to tell. My father sat at the table reading the paper and grinding his teeth, and my mother flayed carrots and whacked off chicken parts with the cleaver so hard that the cutting board shook and the utensils rattled.
Other than that they never hauled up any dirt about my aunts and uncles that could qualify as a secret. My mother kept her distance from my father’s New Haven relatives and never once set foot in their coal- and mothball-smelling Wooster Square walkups. She made it clear that she wanted nothing to do with her own brothers and sisters, and pulled the blinds when she saw her brother Joe, his Polack wife, and five kids pull into the driveway.
Everything else was on display – the big Cadillac that screamed guinea, my father’s bella figura silk suits, and the Georgian pillars on a street lined with 18th century white frames.
Despite my mother’s attempts to hide our goomba past from the old New England families on Madison Street, there was no way that we resembled our casual, tweedy, country club neighbors.
Trash day was the day that the secrets of the Porters, the Booths, and the Lincolns were revealed. “They all drink”, my mother said, pointing out the empty bottles of scotch, gin, and Canadian Club piled high on the curb waiting for pickup.
Drink was a signifier and always meant more than just cocktails or nightcaps. The families in those old colonial houses behind stone walls were dissolute, indolent wastrels. They never worked for a living, summered in impossible places, and the closest they ever got to the factories their captain of industry ancestors had founded was to pick up a Times at Jimmy’s Smoke Shop. My mother had no clue what went on behind the doors of those old houses, but she knew that under the well-heeled exteriors and despite the spiteful arrogance of these privileged West Enders lurked moral turpitude, adultery, and deceit.
So my sister and I were snake-bit and in our early adult years always kept our mouths shut about family affairs and always were suspicious of the neighbors. “You never know”, said my mother, “and it’s better if no one else does”.
Every family in every generation has its rules of propriety and protection and its own guidelines for success. My mother knew that as an Italian immigrant family, professional though we were, the less others knew, the less they were able to lump us with the numbers runners on Arch Street, the pipe-fitters at Stanley Works,and the Mafiosi contractors who poured cement.
Our coddled generation of the Sixties had nothing to fear from the neighbors. We had no bourgeois, socially sedentary, fat cat capitalists of the West Ends of America. We had nothing to prove and nothing to hide; and if it were up to us secrecy and difference would disappear in a tolerant, giving and forgiving world. The whole idea was to share and to husband, not to closet. No more flimsy pretenses or bad excuses.
By the time I had my own children a number of years later, I found it ironic that I had become more like my mother – suspicious, cynical, and protective. Once the storms of the Sixties had abated and all except hardcore hippies had returned to the path of their parents, life was little different than it was back in the Fifties. The social pillars got rattled and the social strata thrown off kilter; but it didn’t take long for things to settle down.
My mother believed that people were no good, but she was mistaken. We are simply as jealous, self-protective, deceptive, ambitious, and above all gullible as we have been for millennia. As long as one understood this, life would be clear sailing.
So the two lessons I gave my children were these:
1. Charm will get you everywhere; and
2. A silver tongue will help.
America was built on these two premises. Where would religion be without spiritual hucksters? Billy Sunday, Amy Semple McPherson, Elmer Gantry, Pat Robertson, and Rick Warren all knew how to cadge, cajole, promise, and endear; and they made millions. Snake oil salesmen, con artists, shell gamers, tin men, and encyclopedia door-to-door men have been staples of the American scene since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock.
Hollywood is all about smiles, arm-candy, and guileless charm. Not only do we buy their exaggerated, heroic and romantic images on the screen, we buy insurance, deodorant, hamburgers, and Medicare Plus thanks to them.
Advertising is myth, faith, icon, and the avant-garde of capitalism. Selling products that no one needs is pure genius. Canny Mad Men understand human nature better than anyone else and sell to social insecurity, personal dissatisfaction, status-envy, and showy success.
Politicians are even more canny because they have learned how to exploit the ignorance and gullibility of the electorate. They are masters of innuendo and back-door rumor. They combine hucksterism, evangelism, and market research to create an irresistible product – themselves.
American politics looks like a bad circus show. What else can you call the tears, flapdoodle, apologies, and instant remakes of outed Congressmen? The bald lies, distortions, false promises, and prevarications of the White House? Cover-ups, deniability, smoke-screens, and scrims are side shows. Smarmy affairs are the bearded ladies and two-headed dwarves.
Yet, despite all the, clowns, freaks, and high-wire acts, politicians always get away with it. There is no limit to their arrogance because we fall for their promises every time. Hook, line, and sinker.
So in this chimera of false promises, what better lessons than my two? What is more important for success and survival in American than charm and glibness?
Of course you need brains to properly calibrate and apply your charm. Indiscriminate anything loses value. And banging on without a behavioral objective tarnishes the silver tongue. Current moral principles and social norms provide the context for graceful salesmanship – you have to know your customer. Charm and eloquence should not be the only arrows in your quiver, but the ones with the poison tips.
I hate to admit it, but my mother was right all along. Not so much about family secrets, but teaching us that facts count for very little. Looks, appearances, show, and whispers count for a whole hell of a lot more.