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

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Regular Guy–A Disappearing Species In A Society More Deviant Than Average

One of the highest compliments that could be to a man in the 50s was that he was ‘a regular guy’, someone without edges who fit in everywhere.  An average Joe without pretense or high expectations, a man who could be trusted, who stayed on the rails, never became loose shunted, and was always predictable, comfortable, and reliable.

It was an era of averages, a unique aberration in a long history of rugged individualism, enterprise, wealth, and visionary territorial expansion.  There was nothing of the Old World left in America after a few generations.  None of Europe’s religious, social, and cultural traditionalism.  No looking back to Roncesvalles, the Crusades, Henry II, or Innocent III.  The old ways were dismissed, discarded, and left behind.   The nation would be become a unique, powerful, new, and dominant Western empire.

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Perhaps it was the war that that settled us down.  Four years of uncertainty and mayhem were certainly enough for generations.  Or perhaps it was the American victory that was responsible for the settled, peaceful postwar period.  There was no longer anyone who could challenge our sovereignty, our moral authority, or our right to reign.  Or perhaps the 50s were simply an interregnum, a collective relaxation from the war, the Depression, the predatory capitalism of the 20s and the lawless 30s.

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Bill Hadley was a regular guy, a businessman who owned a small but profitable clothing shop on Main Street in New Brighton along side of druggists, dry goods stores, jewelers, and novelty shops.  He was a member of Rotary and the Elks, was a parishioner and acolyte at St. James Church, a volunteer at the Boys’ Club, avid golfer, and card player.

He, the druggist, haberdasher, jeweler, and five-and-dime owner met every Thursday for poker night, five dollar maximum, win-some-lose-some; an affair of fellowship and business partnership.
He golfed with the same men, early tee times but after church on Sunday in time to be home for family dinner, a once-a-week feast of a roast, vegetables from the garden, and homemade pies.
Life was good for Bill Hadley – orderly, sober, and responsible – and he enjoyed good citizenship, friendship, and a not inconsequential influence in city affairs.

He was average in every way.  He was a moderate drinker; respectful, enterprising, but never aggressive in business; a stern but loving parent; and above all a faithful husband.  For him there was no greater sin than infidelity, a departure from responsibility, family, and perhaps most importantly a social dereliction.  One simply did not stray.

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Bill remained faithful, dutiful, and caring for his entire life.  He lived out his years in the same house on Adams Street which he had bought when he first moved to New Brighton after the war.  His children never moved more than 25 miles away, and he and his wife both lived well into their nineties.

He not only accepted the codes of behavior of the conservative Fifties; he embraced them.  For him life was meant to be one of rectitude, community, and belonging.  He was never tempted by the social revolution of the Sixties, never persuaded that anything other than faithfulness to home, family, church, and community was of any interest or value.  To the children of his friends and colleagues he was an anachronism, someone who espoused the patriarchal, oppressive, and corrosive habits of the past.  He never questioned or doubted.

Yet despite the criticism and his growing marginalization in a younger and younger community, he remained charitable and respectful. 

Bill Hadley’s story is worth telling not because of any social revisionism – the Fifties were not the idyll portrayed by political conservatives today, and few people, especially women, would really like to return to such a confining, limiting culture.  It is of interest because he seriously and truly valued regularity, habit, and average behavior when it was given only lip-service by everyone else.

Sexual adventure, deviance, and peculiarity were as common in New Brighton in 1952 as they were in the Castro, the East Village, or Venice Beach in the 60s.  They were simply subterranean and thus far more exciting than anything exposed.  What was the fun of cross-dressing if you could do it in public? Or getting stoned when nobody cared? Underground sex would always be better in hidden rooms, especially in a strictly conservative and intolerant era. Not only could you do shameless things, but in the face of such Salem-like hysteria, the felt good – really good.

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In the Fifties when most women were housewives, and the term ‘stay-at-home mom’ had no relevance whatsoever, extramarital sex was no less common than it is today in a much more liberated and tolerant world.  It was simply done much more discreetly.

In small towns of cultural homogeneity and income equality, liaisons with milkmen, plumbers, and carpenters were simply sexual encounters, not the cross-cultural, mixed-race, and ethnically diverse relationships they are today. Women let these men into their homes and into their beds without thinking twice about class or background.

They had nothing in common with famous fictional characters like Miss Julie, the heiress of an aristocratic fortune, but attracted to the valet of the the estate. She plays sexual games of dominance and submission, tempting and testing his virility and independence; but upbringing, status, class, and history destroy her and neuter him.

The women of New Brighton had no such conflicts.  They simply slipped under the covers for a brief interlude with the carpenter and a break from vacuuming, cooking, and changing diapers. 

Bill Hadley missed the cues because he was not looking for them.  He ignored the rumors about Mavis Parker, the ‘homo house’ on Corbin Avenue, Betty Andrews’ serial affairs and her husband’s dalliances in the North End; Sandy Burton’s black mistress; the Mulberry Street connections of the De Angelo brothers; the shysters, loan sharks, and gamblers on Arch Street; the complicity of City Hall, the police, and the courts; the vodka bottles piled in the trash every Thursday. 

No one has ever made a hero out of a regular guy.  Normality if anything is a backstory for people who have evolved, gotten an edge, an identity, or a purpose.  More than not is a throwback to a less definitive age, one with soft, pliable borders.  Few people look beneath the surface of regular guys because they are sure to find nothing there.  Surface people register nothing, express nothing, and do nothing except the expected and the predictable.

Bill Hadley would not have argued.  He never pretended to be anything but a regular guy.  He was neither proud of who he was nor defensive about it.  He never considered regularity to be anything more than a given.  Others may have imputed something more to his traditionalism – a moral foundation to which people would always return – but he demurred when asked to generalize.  It was not in him to reflect or to consider.

In a society more deviant than average, there are few Bill Hadleys left.  He and other regular guys will be missed not because they are remarkable but because they are unremarkable – moral and social foci in a centripetal world.  Dull perhaps, easily overlooked, never memorable and never feted, they will never disappear.  Without them, our naked individualism would never be clothed.

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