That Justice Thing

Yesterday, over at “Salon”:http://www.salon.com, I read an article by “Anne Lamott”:http://www.salon.com/mwt/col/lamott/2005/12/05/carpet_guy/index.html, someone vaguely familiar to me, but whom I had never read. My initial reactions? She’s a good writer. She’s a heavy Christian. (and after finishing the article) she’s an idiot.

Without getting into a bunch of quotes, here’s the gist of the article as I see it:

She’s driving around one day and spies a hole-in-the-wall carpet store. She picks up one of the pre-cut remnants rolled up outside the shop to take back to her church to be put in the kids’ playroom. Long story short, when the church people roll it out, there’s mold in the middle of the carpet and it’s unsuitable for kids. One of the church members takes it back to the carpet store and tells Anne she can pick up her refund check the next day. Anne goes over there and the store owner says someone from the church already picked up the check ($50). Anne goes back to the church and no, nobody picked up the check. She goes back to the carpet store and the guy shows her his ledger “proving” the check was picked up. This goes back and forth for several days and Anne gets madder and madder. She pleads with him, tries to get his sympathy for the poor kids who still need a carpet. That doesn’t work so she curses him. At one point, she arrives to confront the store owner and grabs the phone on his desk to call a man at the church. She thrusts the phone at the store owner. She can hear the man from the church screaming and threatening the store owner like Tony Soprano. Anne gets angrier and angrier, cursing the guy out and throwing threats herself. At one point, the guy gives Anne a check which turns out to be bogus. At this point, any normal reader is going, “duh, the guy is a crook, it’s way past time to send Furio over to kneecap him.” But at this point, Anne goes home and does a little soul searching. She doesn’t like herself, the way she’s been responding. In the end, she calls the crooked store owner and apologizes for her behavior. He says, “you’re right, you behaved badly”. She can see anger returning but this time sees it from a different perspective. “Yes, I behaved badly”, she says and they both hang up.

So, yesterday after I read this, I’m thinking, “good writer, heavy Christian, idiot. She should’ve kneecapped him”. But today, her article kept worming its way through my thoughts. Not like a Diana Krall ear worm, but like one of those things that happens when you experience art. It started me thinking about my own concept of justice and the part revenge has played throughout my life.

When it comes to revenge and justice, I have an excellent memory and I have a long list. Back in Junior High, I met my first real girlfriend. Charlene was my age and just transferred over from a neighboring school. Not really knowing what to do with a girlfriend, it was pretty much self-conscious phone calls with my parents listening in and hand-holding in the halls at school. One day my friend Bud came over and said that he saw Charlene at the football game. “So?” I said. “She was making out with Harvey behind the bleachers and drove off in his car.” I didn’t believe him and walked away. Over the next couple of weeks, this guy Harvey started bumping into me in the hallways and knocking my books over. Harvey was a star heavyweight varsity wrestler and had 4 years and 100 lbs. on me. I told him to go fuck himself.

One day during gym, in the locker room, I saw a blur out of the corner of my eye. When I woke up, my friends told me that after he knocked me unconscious, Harvey threw me bodily from one end of the locker room to the other and back again and back again. My face looked like I’d gone through a car windshield. Harvey ended up getting thrown off the wrestling team and was banned from sports for the rest of his high school career. But that wasn’t enough justice for me. I added Harvey to my revenge list.

Harvey stayed away from me after that, but my “girlfriend” Charlene came up and spat in my face. Then Harvey’s very large friends took to stalking me. When they’d catch me alone, there’d be fights. I’d do my best, but it was never any contest. I was too proud to go to school officials, so I took it. This continued until they all graduated. (It occurs to me now, that in some weird twist, they were only pursuing justice for Harvey’s being banned from sports. Justice may actually exist in the eye of the beholder) At any rate, I added Harvey’s friends to my revenge list.

Later, after I finished college and was living in Boston, I heard that one of them, a guy who’d never been able to leave our small town, was working in the salt mines (like so many of my schoolmates ended up) and fell into a large salt vat, which sucked him under and smothered him to death. I felt a sense of justice for that one. But a few years later, a good friend of mine and a truly good person, a kid named Parky, was crushed between freight cars at the same mine. The only lesson that anyone could possibly learn from any of it is that justice is blind as a fucking bat.

After school, Harvey got drafted and went to Vietnam. He spent his two years, survived and came back to join a police force in a large city where he took part in drug raids against inner-city dealers. A friend of mine, who was friends of a friend of Harvey’s said that he took part in many drug raids. During one of them, there was a lot of gunfire. Harvey wasn’t hit, but he was shaken and ended up losing his nerve. He struggled with it, but just couldn’t do it any more and had to retire. I recall thinking that there was some kind of justice in that, but there was also something very human and tragic as well. I didn’t know what to think, except that I didn’t think Harvey needed to be on my revenge list any more.

Later, after my Dad died, my Mom was living alone in Ithaca. A neighbor living across the street in a rental property became the bane of her existence. He drank and partied all night. His dog barked all night, and Mom said that she was sure he was breaking into her home and stealing things. Incensed, I called my friend Gary, an old street buddy. I told him the story. He knew my Mom and wanted to go over and throttle the guy right then. I told him to wait until I could fly up. “I want to take care of him personally. I want to inject fear into this asshole’s life”.

Months passed and I couldn’t get away, but the asshole was on my list. Shortly thereafter, my Mom sold the house and moved to the town my sister lived in to be near the grandkids. She no longer had to put up with the idiot neighbor, but that didn’t mean that he was off my list.

A few years later, I was up in Ithaca visiting friends and ran into Gary. “Did you ever take care of that guy?” he said. I thought for a minute. “No”, I said. “I’m not sure why. Mom moved to Rochester. I dunno. But I still need to teach him a lesson.”

As I think about it, Mom’s old neighbor is probably the only person left on my list. The rest have pretty much gone on with their lives. And it looks like for the most part, so have I.

Which gets me back to Anne Lamott’s article. Apologizing to the crook who took her money because she cursed at him. What an idiot Christian thing to do. If you don’t keep score and avenge those who commit wrongs against you, then where is justice in all this? After worming her way through my thoughts ever since I read that article, I’m guessing that it’s more complicated than that.

Justice is somewhere inside us. Justice is the scale of balances that we each have to deal with in our lives wherever we go, whatever we do. We can’t control the lives of crooks and idiots and miscreants and the rest of them that would do us harm. We can only control what kind of person we are.

In the end, we can only try to live our own lives with humility and strength, as best we can. And if we work at it, sometimes we can find a little balance there, and we grow.

And maybe there’s some justice in that

One thought on “That Justice Thing

  1. Your conclusion is very true, you can only control yourself. But that was just as true in your youth as you compiled your own Nixonian list (ow, that hurt, didn’t it?)

    I can only speak for myself, but I think it has something to do with age. Not necessarily wisdom. More like “experience.”

    I’ve learned to pick my spots. I know most assholes are simply not worth investing any of the minutes I have left on this planet … but every now and then, I find one worthy of investment.

    I still know I can only control myself, and even when I “pick my spots,” it likely will not have a rehabilitative effect.

    But what you call “justice” is, at its core, our innate sense of “right and wrong.” And I’m not sure you can ever fully curb that … no matter how old I get.

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