"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–Origins

I have often quoted the New Britain (CT) Herald clip about me as I was about to head off to India for an international Non-Governmental Organization (NGO).  “Local Boy Does Good” said the headline.  The rest was provided by the organization – local publications were good for business.

When we first joined, one of the obligatory stops in the orientation program was to the Ninth Floor, the sanctum sanctorum of the organization.  This was where a legion of eye-shaded and arm-banded clerks opened the envelopes from “the donors”.  This was the cultural heart of the organization.  “The Ninth Floor” was spoken with reverence, respect, and awe by the President and his staff.  “The donor” was not only the one who financed the organization, but the one who represented its mission, the one who truly cared about hunger, poverty, and children.

To Batch 68-3, those of us joining in the Fall of 1968 – and who needs to be reminded of the dramatic social change of that year in particular – the Ninth Floor was the hokiest and lamest thing we had ever seen.  Dark, dingy, spare, and industrial, the Ninth Floor had government surplus tables and chairs; old men in stained ties and shiny pants opening envelopes, sorting the cash from the checks, noting both in the log book; flickering florescent lights, broken and cracked linoleum, and a few cranky stand-fans moving the stale air.  If this was the cultural heart of the NGO, we had made a big mistake.

We later learned that this depressing, Dickensian, place was made deliberately so by the President and Board of Directors.  It was all for show just in case a donor came to visit.  Not a penny should be spent unnecessarily on overhead.  Your dollar, minus a few pennies for the gnomes opening the envelopes, goes to the children.  Another cultural icon of the organization and the symbol of the many other NGOs making their living off poverty – the children.  The more hare-lipped, fly-eyed, emaciated, and pitiful-looking, the better.  God forbid you should show the results of your efforts in your pledge drives – the bright, happy children with books and food, and clean water.  These were the photographs for the Annual Report.  Doing Good pays off.

Despite the nice headline and clip in the Herald, doing good was the last thing on my mind.  I had no “service motive” as I had been told by various career counselors.  They never told me what motive I did have (Living Well), since my answers had such a wide variation.  The only thing that the counselor, flummoxed with the wide swing of answers on my psycho-social test but trying to remain professional could say was “Some day you’ll probably work for yourself”. 

I am from an Italian-American family who didn’t try to do anything except fit in, the American Dream of the 50s.  My father became a doctor because it was a way out of the ghetto – My Son the Doctor wasn’t only for Jews – and was not in it to do good; nor did he live well.  He was elegant in a bella figura way – tailored suits, silk ties, Italian shoes; but it stopped there.  No fucking around for him; no parties; no adventure.  I grew up in the West End of New Britain, the Anglo-Saxon, proto-industrialist, Nantucket, Shuttle Meadow Country Club End of town, and God knows, the sons and daughters of New Britain’s captains of industry couldn’t give a flying fuck about doing good.  On the contrary, I admired – from afar – their tanned escapades on the Vineyard, their social ease and confidence, their old cars, banged up loafers, and white socks with tuxedos (I was straight-jacketed into proper clothes, proper shoes.  We drove Cadillacs and played cards).

So, I have – in this blog and elsewhere – claimed that Living Well – at least the travel part - started with this French exchange student at my country day school.  He was the human face to the French II grammar with a picture of the CafĂ© des Deux Magots; and this urge was consolidated by the Peace Corps returnees with stories of adventures in foreign lands. 

Living Well and the complete indifference to Doing Good has been the story of my life because I have lived off of Doing Good contracts for 40 years without the slightest bit of conviction; and have unapologetically and unashamedly Lived Well on USAID money.

I have no idea why I associate my “career” choice with Bobby Parker, a big, oversized, fat bully who, even in the distant past before HGH, must have been given some by his parents.  In the Seventh Grade he was over 6' ft. and weighed at least 170 lbs. Even at a fraction of that he could have messed us up, but at circus size he was a menace.  He tripped us in the halls, blindsided us on the playground, threw great wads of wet toilet paper on top of us while we were taking a shit in the stalls, kneed us in the balls coming down stairs.  Even his dog, a big German Shepherd was a bully, and pissed on every other dog in the neighborhood.

This was in the 50s, remember, so there was no PC anti-bullying movement of today.  Bullies exist.  Deal with it.  Move on.  It will make you a better person.

As Bobby got older the bullying didn’t stop, it got worse, and took more twisted forms.  We all used to “park” on the golf course, get whatever nooky we could on one of the narrow golf cart lanes by the Fifth Hole.  One night I was out there with Susan Nichols, and was about to take her luscious, plump, sweet, pink titty in my mouth when Bobby Parker appeared out of nowhere, banged on the car door, placed his fat, bulbous lips on the window and sucked like a Large Mouth Bass.  What could I do?  Stop it, Bobby, I said while Susan covered up her succulent breasts; but he just thumped and sucked until he was good and ready to leave.  “Why didn’t you stop him?”, said Susan; which of course was the problem with adolescent bullies.  If you don’t do anything, the girls, already acting out their primal search for the Protector and Provider, bitched at you. The first ounce of flesh had been taken.

I went on to Loomis and Yale and Bobby stumbled his way through third rate prep schools and college.  I am sure not long after orientation at The Peddie School he got beaten up by someone his size and seriously mean.  Bobby was too dumb to be mean, and ended up teaching at Peddie.  For me, in my new international boulvardier mode, this was an unexpected but yet sad comeuppance.

I left for India not to leave New Britain, Bobby Parker, the 50s ordinariness of New Britain; and the frustrated envy of the West End; but because of them.  I wanted no more sedateness; no more tans and Topsiders; no more West End dummies; no more bella figura; no more duty, faithfulness, allegiance, respectfulness.  I had no clue – zero – about India.  If I had any image it was of the Black Hole of Calcutta, some miasma of misery and despair; but this was more a cartoon image in a Superhero comic book than any possible reality.  India was adventure, excitement, and the good life.  I knew it.  How I knew it, I don’t know; but I did.

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