When Reporters go to the Zoo

And write about it, this is about what you’d get.  A profile article in The Washington Post about the family that Dylann Roof crashed with during the weeks immediately preceding his murderous rampage in Charleston.

The home’s occupants are, in no particular order, a twice-abandoned mother who’s working her country ass off at the local Waffle House, her three useless-as-tits-on-a-boar-hog sons, Justin, Joey, and Jacob (how cute! matching names), the slatternly girlfriend of one of them (does it matter which?), and a motley assortment of people who seem to be “staying there,” as the lower orders around here say, for different reasons and periods.

“Home” is a beat-up ol’ single-wide out in the sticks in up-country South Carolina.  It houses Mom, the three boys, the girlfriend (for the time being), and whatever dead-beat loser buddy of whichever of the three brothers feels like imposing himself on whatever the mother can earn down at the Waffle House, together with such cash-under-the-counter scrapings as come in whenever one of the boys feels like getting far enough off his ass to scratch his own fleas.  There is a dog, Daisy, whom the reporter identifies as a “pit bull puppy,” but whom the picture with the article plainly shows to be a beagle or some other hound breed.  [If that’s the standard of the WaPo‘s fact checking you might want to take at least some of the rest of the article with a grain of salt.]

They didn’t always live like this.  At one point they lived in a subdivision, in a clean house, with clean clothes, and predictable patterns to their lives.  Then the mother’s (second) husband just up and walked out.  She lost her job as a medical technician (the article doesn’t say why; it could have been any number of reasons — the medical industry chews people up and spits them out like seeds), then lost the house to foreclosure.  They moved to the trailer.

Among their neighbors back during “normal” was a kid named Dylann Roof.  Another was some kid named Shane who would “stay for weeks” in the family’s house, and later in their trailer “even though he had his own trailer by then.”  He used to get drunk and talk about doing crazy self-destructive things, like drinking rat poison.  Everyone thought he was just stupid drunk and running his mouth.  One evening he swallowed a shotgun; one of the Meek boys stole his cowboy boots from his still-blood-spattered home “as a memento.”  During his pre-homicidal visitation, Roof would get good ‘n’ drunk and talk about doing “something crazy,” and wave around his new .45 ACP (in a really interesting data point, he’d also get good ‘n’ drunk and go sit in his car to listen to . . . opera; the article doesn’t vouchsafe us which composer(s)).  At one point one of the brothers took Roof’s gun away from him and hid it.  Not because they thought he might go and calmly murder nine people in a church, but because they thought he might swallow the gun.  Like their buddy Shane had in fact done.  They gave Roof his gun back.

The article asks, not so subtly, why this family didn’t take Roof’s announcements seriously and call the cops.  I have news for the reporter:  No one takes anything about people in that world seriously.  Not even they do.  When they tell each other they love someone, it’s generally neither meant nor received in earnest; when they announce an intention to turn the page and get themselves straightened out, everyone who hears the statement knows it won’t happen.  When one of them finds Jesus, everyone mentally calculates the date when he’ll backslide and end up with another drunk-and-disorderly on an ever-lengthening rap sheet.  When one of them expresses an ambition, it’s accepted that he’ll never stir from the couch to realize it.  When one of them is drunker than Cooter Brown and allows he’s not going to take that shit from the boss/neighbor/teacher/wife/husband/police or whatever other source of momentary friction has intruded into his world, no one believes for a moment that his statement will turn out to bear any correlation with his actions.

Among the cameos put in by the rotating cast of drifters, scroungers, and layabouts is a heavily-tattooed black kid identified as Christon, who professes even yet to “love” Roof as a friend.  The value of Christon’s love for anyone can be measured by his later quotation, “I have no sympathy for people. Nobody has any sympathy for me. I care for me and me only.”  Spare me your love, Christon old man.

The only person even slightly sympathetic in the whole show is Mom.  She is shown cleaning, “constantly cleaning. She wipes the kitchen counters. She straightens the blinds. She folds up the sofa where Lindsey and Joey sleep, folds the sheet and zebra blanket, and drops them in the corner where Roof often lounged, as Jacob does now.”  She’s shown at work, exhausted and — one suspects — shell-shocked that her existence, once so . . . so . . . normal, has degenerated to the point that now they themselves are the target of an investigation by the feds in connection with this punk Roof’s crimes.  [I’d like to know just what the hell law it’s believed these people broke.  Not listening to a drunk-ass dead-beat is not a crime; it’s called ordinary common sense.]

No details are given on what lead to both marriages to break up in similar fashion, with the husband leaving.  I can imagine the second husband getting good and sick of having some neighbor kid invading his home for weeks on end, drunk, high, or both, to whoop it up with the wife’s layabout children by another man.  Or maybe he was cool with it.  Who knows.

The only knock on Mom which immediately appears from the article is her abysmally poor judgment.  Step One on her Back to Normal project needs to be to kick out everyone but the 15 year-old, change the locks, and tell little junior if he fucks up one more time, even just a little, it’s off to juvie for him and she’ll never have anything more to do with him.  The older two need to go sleep on a park bench or wherever it is until they realize that being able-bodied males and mooching off their mother who’s killing herself by inches at the Waffle House is the kind of public disgrace that no one ought to be able to endure and still hold his head up and call himself a man.  I’m sure Mom loves her boys; she’s their mother.  But hell and blast, lady, your children have got themselves and you on a path to where one or more of you is going to come to a violent end.  Stop it.  Now.  You’ve got to be the adult in this picture.

I ran across the article on a friend’s Facebook page.  His comment:  “I read this story, riveted, from front to back, in the paper this morning and decided it’s the most depressing thing I’ve read in months. These people have a miserable life, and it’s hard to imagine what could be done to help. It really does seem hopeless. And learning that people from this milieu are resorting to random violence should not come as any surprise.”

Oh dear.  Where to start with this sort of non-comprehension?  For starts, the United States is full of families who live in beat-up old single-wides out in the woods.  They’re either momentarily down on their luck or fate has dealt them a bad hand which they’ve played poorly.  But as the mother demonstrates, you don’t have to live like that.  Or as P. J. O’Rourke quotes his dead-broke Irish mother during the depths of the Great Depression, “No one is too poor to clean up his front yard.”  Living like this family does is an active choice, for which they deserve censure, not pity.  And guess what else?  The percentage of people who live like this and who “resort to random violence” is almost incalculably small.  True enough, many of them live like that precisely because they are or have been criminally violent in their pasts, but it’s generally exactly the kind of violence that’s always existed in society:  Violence among one’s own circle of acquaintance.  I can’t recall the precise number just now, but the overwhelming proportion of victims of violence personally know their assailant.  Not “random” at all, in other words.  They’re not “resorting” to it from misery or hopelessness; they’re violent because that’s who and what they are.  It’s how the world works that they live in, a world they are fully participatory in making.

All of which is to say that I know way too many people who either right now live like that, or grew up living in circumstance in comparison to which this family is on Easy Street, and who are decent, law-abiding, hard-working, community-supporting people.  In fact, not a few of them are the most hard-working and financially (for their circumstances) generous supporters of operations like the humane society, the food bank, the help center, and their respective churches.  Need a pull out of a mud-choked ditch?  They’ll be there, with their tow strap or chain and a 25 year-old pick-up truck that has its license plate in the rear window because there isn’t a bumper on it.  Church has a leaky roof?  They’ll be up there with a hammer or holding the ladder.  Dog gets dumped out on a back-country dirt road?  It’ll come home with them.  They are really ordinary folks whom you’d be happy to pass the time of day with, if you found them on a park bench beside you.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Mom in this story was one of those people.  But Jesus Christ and General Jackson! lady.  Get your worthless-ass sons out of your house.  You can’t help them until you get your own life back on track, and that’s not going to happen as long as you’re the pack animal for these thugs.

I do agree with my friend’s characterization of this story as depressing. It is every bit that.  It’s depressing because you know you cannot help these people.  Even Mom, who knows how not to live like this, has more or less chosen to do so, by permitting her useless children to create that world around her.  You cannot stop a person bent on self-destruction.

What’s striking about the newspaper article is the reporter’s tone.  It’s as if he’s gone to the St. Louis Zoo and is reporting from the primate house.  “Zerlinda, the matriarch of the band, plucks lice from the fur of Josephus, the dominant silver-back.  He occasionally gives her a smack on the head, sending her reeling.  She sulks, never for more than a few moments, then tenderly returns to her grooming.  Pluck.  Smack.  Pluck.  Every so often they will stare through the glass at us.  What in the world might be crossing their ape minds?”

The dog dies at the end of the story.

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