In 1967 I received my B.A. with the ordinary Angst concerning the step to follow. My distaste for capitalism eliminated most career options at the outset even if anyone might actually care to employ an English major with minors in German and Ancient Greek. To complicate matters, graduation meant I would lose the student exemption that had held the draft at bay for four years.
My desire to avoid money and career coalesced with my wish to dodge the draft and with the government’s interest in coopting the radical spirit of the young. Foreign as the inclination to work for subsistence may seem to the present generation, I was far from alone at the time. My social conscience combined with more than a dash of infatuation with the Other, and I joined VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America, created in 1965, later to change to a division of AmeriCorps and only recently all but eliminated. The protection from Selective Service was never guaranteed, and, in fact, one of my cohort was drafted a few months later and went promptly underground.
Though another may be able to characterize such service as part of a glorious continuum of human betterment stretching from early abolitionists and labor organizers through the SDS ERAP projects and Barack Obama’s days with the Developing Communities Project in Chicago, I cannot.
I had specified a preference for work on an Indian reservation, but I was assigned to inner-city youth. The six weeks training period began with classes but quickly turned into a month-long internship. I was to work with Hull House, the historic settlement house in Chicago. At this time Hull House was conducting a pilot program for Job Corps in their rural work camp.
The concept of Job Corps from the start had been that taking individuals out of their own neighborhoods and placing them in a new environment might allow them to develop new habits and values. For years Hull House had operated a summer camp for poor city kids called Bowen Country Club near Waukegan which had been donated by the banker, manufacturer, and Hull House chair Joseph Bowen in the ‘30s. This had since been sold and another property purchased in East Troy, Wisconsin, a short distance across the border from Illinois. I don’t know whether some sociologist had suggested the change, but the plan at Hull House’s camp was to bring groups of gang youth en masse so that people’s friends could accompany them to ease the transition. They were to receive a low hourly wage during the week, be paid on Friday and returned to Chicago for the weekend where the administrators hoped they would seem successful with their earnings and attract more youth to give up the gang life and work for a living.
Thus I came to know a few dozen members of the Vice Lords. Referring to the north Lawndale neighborhood where the group had originated they would call out “K-town -- from hell we came to claim our fame – mighty, mighty Vice Lords.” Their leader was Looney, a physically unimposing young guy with a jaunty little fedora on the side of his shaved head. Looney was able to direct his troops by means of oblique and imaginative language. When rendering an opinion or a mandate, he seemed only slightly more explicit than the Delphic oracle. “Weeell,” he would slowly begin, “I knew a lady once, lived about 29th and Federal, and this little dog would bark at her ass every day and she never said a word and one day that little shit-ass dog don’t bark and don’t nobody know where it is and when they asked her, she said, ‘Why you asking me?’ And the son-of-a bitch never bothered her again.” In his crew were Hawk, Cowboy (also called Mossie), Three-Corners (aka Wolfman), Spooky, Peyton, Butch, Midnight (or Captain Midnight), and Peanuts. These are the people with whom I worked and lived. The other main faction was a group of Latin Kings who called each other names like Chico, Flaco, and Bongo.
The blacks were close enough to migration from the South for the urban/rural contrast to be a status distinction (as it is in line from a Willie Dixon song that Bo Diddley made a hit: “I may look like a farmer, but I’m a lover.”). They were always calling out, “You dumb-ass Mississippi-bred nigger,” “Hey, black-ass country-bred boy.” They had an elaborate set of literary conventions and tropes. One might say “You my man – die for you – killed three panthers, a lion, and a mountain goat.” I also heard the ironic inversion of this figure: “I killed three roaches, a fly, and a gnat for you, my man.”
I had arrived at the work camp with two VISTA comrades, though the other two were gone after three days. The first was a very nice fellow, a bit callow perhaps, who had just dropped out of training as a Jesuit. As most of us were solidly middle class, during our lectures in preparation for service, we had been instructed about the nature of the poor and the under-class. One speaker had enlarged upon class distinctions among blacks based on income, hair, skin tone, and the like, linking this invidious system of values to the distinction during slavery days between house niggers and field niggers. On our second day in the camp, the first day of contact with “clients,” my colleague found himself washing dishes next to a proud Vice Lord. Probably something at a loss (he wasn’t particularly at ease even in bourgeois company), he seems to have recalled his lesson and made some comment about house and field niggers. Doubtless his interlocutor heard only the epithet and immediately knocked him to the floor with a single punch. Though he shortly came round, he departed that evening.
I had suspected my second colleague might be a government agent. He introduced himself as a Berkeleyite, active in the Movement, and wore political buttons as though to reinforce the claim. I had already as an undergraduate known a few infiltrators and agents provocateurs, and I thought this fellow seemed quite suspicious. I must have been wrong this time, though, since, on the evening of our very first day in camp, while socializing, he offered some marijuana to our young charges. Though he may have imagined this would help him to establish rapport as a cool white guy, he was in fact immediately given up when one of his new friends was busted in the city that weekend. “My social worker gave it to me!” VISTA quenched the legal consequences, but he, too, vanished from the program. Though I cannot claim to have accomplished much, I at least had enough sense to avoid such catastrophes.
Some of the urban youth were disturbed by the darkness and silence of the countryside. A few were clearly reluctant to stray from the lighted areas after dark. Before long the belief in a malevolent monster called Grippo began to emerge. Grippo lurked in the woods, awaiting an opportunity to rush in on horseback and seize some careless human. Some of his characteristics, I feel sure, derived from Southern stories of violent night riders. I can’t say whether some of the more clever guys made this up intentionally to mock the credulous, but I think it is fair to say that the belief spread as time went on. There is no doubt, though that the forest ogre was associated with a real-life figure. My time at the Work Camp coincided with the civil rights demonstration led by Fr. James Groppi in Milwaukee. Rather like Martin Luther King’s open housing campaign in Chicago the year before, Fr. Groppi dramatized Northern segregation in a series of militant marches. The Vice Lords, however, viewing news footage of the priest leading mostly black crowds into hostile neighborhoods, did not seem to view him as a friend. Even to those unsure of exactly what his con was, his motives seemed dark. I heard comments that implied that he was the enemy of blacks, that he was taking advantage of the people with whom he marched. Somehow this suspicion coalesced into a misprision and he achieved the status of a myth. Talk of Grippo increased.
The management was concerned about our image in the small town nearby. Though the camp did patronize local stores and thus curry favor with some merchants, the country folk virtually never saw the urban youth unless they were driven to town for a medical appointment. Several were being treated for gonorrhea, and our administrator thought this might reflect badly on the operation. As many of the gang members were interested in music, he hit upon the expedient of inviting the local village’s big shots to a talent show showcasing their abilities. He could begin with an elaborate dinner to show off the skills of the kitchen staff. He wanted an open bar – not just wine and beer, but all sorts of spirits -- to ensure the jollity of the locals. He even purchased elaborate floral displays from a local shop to impress the guests. When the florist arrived, he caused considerable hilarity when he turned out to be an effeminate guy who was clearly interested in the young campers. Not surprisingly, a good share of the liquor was diverted the instant it arrived. By the time dinner was prepared, we staff members assigned to the bar were taking our own share as well. In spite of various snafus, we made it through dessert. Unfortunately, by this time, at least half the acts were in no condition to take the stage. Those that did perform made, for the most part, a sorry spectacle. And then, suddenly, a Latin King who had not long before suffered a femur-shattering gunshot wound and walked with an artificial leg, came forward out of turn with some urgent message which he never managed to deliver since, as soon as he had gained the stage, he tripped and stumbled and lost his prosthetic while announcing something in Spanish that he considered very important.
The training concluded, and I made it to a permanent assignment in Minneapolis. I heard that the director was fired shortly after I moved on. If the mingling of middle-class and underclass was to change society, I could not see it from my perspective. What had been learned during my training was, I am afraid, little to the credit of any of those involved.