Several years ago I lived in segregated housing. The 24-unit apartment building was managed by Christopher Community, the housing branch of the Catholic Church, and they wouldn’t let able-bodied people live there. Only disabled people. We received no services or assistance. The building was unmanageable as it was configured and Christopher Community went through six managers in the five years I lived there.
In the following recitation, Jolene was the manager. It wasn’t until later that I figured out that clinically she was a sociopath, hired by Christopher Community after she’d been fired from another HUD-subsidized property for high crimes and misdemeanors. I wrote a memo itemizing Jolene’s offenses against the tenants and gave it to her and to all the other tenants. Then we had a meeting: me, my case manager, Jolene’s supervisor Peter, and Peter’s supervisor Cindy.
Here was the moment of true revelation: Cindy was asking me why I wrote that memo saying all those things about Jolene. Why would I say those things?
First of all, I said, you have to understand that you shouldn’t have accused me of slander. Slander, I said, is oral. My memo was in writing; if you’re going to charge me with something, charge me with libel.
Cindy didn’t like the fact that I was correcting her—and asked what difference did it make, anyway?
The difference, I explained, is how can I take you seriously when you don’t even know what you’re talking about? Then I went further and added that the defense against slander or libel is the truth. If what I said was true then I’m home free. You don’t understand, I told Cindy. Before I write something I do my homework. I check my facts. I know what I’m talking about. What I said is true. Jolene might not like it, but that’s not because it’s not true.
Cindy referenced how awful it would be to read something like this about yourself in the newspaper. I said that there are a lot of things printed in the paper that aren’t nice, but if they’re true then you’ve just got to live with them. But Cindy was deeply troubled about why I would write these things about Jolene. The gist of her message was, ‘True or not, why say these things?’
And that’s when it hit me. “Cindy,” I asked, “what’s your job title?”
“Regional manager,” she said.
I replied, “And I will never, ever, as long as I live and no matter what I might do, be a Regional Manager because to become one, you can’t say things like I do. You have to be discreet and diplomatic and subtle and graceful if you want to become a Regional Manager. I’m not. I’m in-your-face confrontive. I’m Ralph Nader and Caesar Chavez. I’m for the people. Cindy, I said, you’re management and I’m labor.
And there it was: Cindy will never agree with the way I do things and I will never agree with the way Cindy does things. She and I are both all about power but she has it and I want it. I want to set my people free and the only way to do that is to take power away from those who have it.
Let us repeat our little history lesson: all power belonged to the king (and before that, all power belonged to the tribal leader [see also: best warrior] and before the tribal leader came the pack, with the alpha male running the hunt). In 1215, the rebellious barons made King John sign the Magna Charta, the “Great Charter” that began to take power away from the king and give it up to the people. For example, the king no longer could charge a man with a crime just because he felt like it—now, there was to be a Grand Jury, which had the power to say the man couldn’t be charged.
The king owned everything and was everything—he was the absolute ruler. All American law—most particularly landlord/tenant law—is descended from this process of stealing power away from the king. In other words, the little guy always has to work to get power away from the big guy who’s got the power. Power is a commodity of limited measure. Power to the people must come at the expense of power to the king.
“Cindy,” I said, “You’re management and I’m labor.” The rules for the king, the barons and the regional managers are: know which fork to use for the fish, be polite no matter what, maintain the external appearance of pleasure no matter how you feel, cover your mouth when you sneeze, and never forget that you were born to the highest class.
The rules for the people, the laborers and me are: know how to get enough food, be polite whenever possible, maintain your feelings no matter how unpleasant, sneeze into your elbow when you’re serving food, and never forget that you’re a classy broad.
As our long negotiating session dribbled to an end I chatted with Cindy about her family. Her husband is an engineer; her high-school-senior daughter wants to be a high school math teacher; her young son wants—as they all must—to be a professional baseball player. Cindy’s family lives in Skaneateles.
Ah, Skaneateles—the exclusive home of the wealthy. Skaneateles—a beautiful, deep, unpolluted lake, long green lawns stretching down to boat docks, mansions with boathouses bigger than my apartment. Skaneateles, where President Bill Clinton vacationed with his wife and daughter. Skaneateles, where ice cream cones don’t drip and kids drive Ferraris, albeit stolen from their fathers.
I grew up with one foot on my mother’s family farm and the other on my father’s college campus. I went from activist-intelligentsia to poor, sick Christian. I went from some place that was poor but honorable to some other place that is stronger than iron and meaner than hell.
Why did I have to say those things about Jolene, Cindy? Because that’s how I break down her power over me. Jolene is a liar, an adulteress and a con woman, and I destroy the illusion of power with the truth of reality.