MY TROUBLED TIMES—“TAKE THE TOOTH OUT”

John Ballantine


“Let’s take both out next week. It will hurt, your cheeks will swell, but the pain will be over in two days.”

No, it won’t, I mumbled. It is not my wisdom teeth but life after college. Walking the Lake Champlain path through the November sunset, I wondered, as I stepped into the dark, what I was doing up here, next to the Northeast Kingdom. No guiding angels singing.

Looking out the window from my study with neatly arranged piles of papers on my desk—stories of drug-addict friends and interview transcripts—I stared out at the setting sun. No way out of Harlem or the Bronx for these guys. I scribbled, typed, read, and looked up to the night sky. What is happening in our cities? I gasped for breath. The betrayals, the false promises. There was no real work for the poor, the addicted, and the criminal. 

They were promised a way out: if you were straight and showed up on time, all would work out, we promised; but that was not true for almost everyone working at Wildcat Inc., the supported work program for ex-addicts. I was there to supervise, learn, and help them out; peer into another world and tell the less fortunate, this is the way out. My first job after college.

There were no answers sitting on my desk. The cherry desk was made at Jamesburg Reformatory by boys half my age—and it was mine at cost, as my mother, sitting on the New Jersey parole board, passed judgement on the kids. Yes, no, a couple more months once the boy finishes school. I worked in the shop on the weekends, spinning wood bowls as the boys, the inmates, made my cherry desk and my mother held court. The boys were learning woodworking skills so they could make it in the real world, declared superintendent Charlie Houston. Fat chance.

I sat at my reformatory desk staring out the window, knowing that Prisoners Were People, a book my mother gave me when I was twelve. Why was the world so unfair? How did my addict friends—the smart guys who knew how to deal, play the numbers, and talk the good line—how did the smart ones break the grip of poverty and crime with no college degree and a screwed-up work history? This job, that, and a gap of three years when they were in the joint upstate. Just street smarts and fast talk.

The injustice hit me in the face as I crossed 116th Street and 8th Avenue—the dealer’s corner—or passed the strip joints crowding 42nd Street and Times Square. I was just out of college with an English degree, three films, and no call from the draft board. High blood pressure but not a conscientious objector, according to the Trenton draft board. “I ain’t killing no Vietnamese,” like Mohammed Ali said at his draft board hearing, but my blood pressure told the army that I reacted too quickly to guns, Agent Orange forests, and the contradictions of war. So I sat in northern Vermont with books, political treatises, elaborate conspiracy theories, and me trying to make sense of the scourge of heroin and the War on Poverty. Another program full of good intentions, falling way short.

How to tell the story, dissect the logic of addiction and unemployment—why working and playing by the rules was not enough—and why the promises of a way out with a good job, clean apartment, and crime-free neighborhoods were dreams, maybe misperceptions, that we all wanted to believe. These were men who told me their stories as we drank Chock Full o’Nuts coffee each morning. Clyde, Barry, and the ex-addict supervisors reviewed the day’s work schedule with me. We rolled our eyes at the always-late excuses and elaborate story about subway delays, lost subway tokens, and why I’m late. Clyde and Barry knew the score, I did not. A white college boy couldn’t really get the game. 

My black and brown ex-addict peers knew from day one that the system was rigged. Supported work was just another gig, like the methadone clinics, a good try that would not work. They were along for the ride—and the money was easy. For them it started with the color of your skin, where you were born, the crappy schools, how much money was in your pocket, and what you did to get by. Deal, steal, and a little work. Not fair, not right. And how was I, a 23-year-old white man, scribbling in a cold study, going to figure out how to break the cycle of drugs, crime, and poverty?

“Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear.”

Why do good people become part of the system…to some, the oppressors? Marx sat in a musty London library with books all around him for years and came up with Das Capitaland his definitive answers to why capitalism would fail. I did not. There were no easy answers. Johnson’s War on Poverty was sputtering out as the last American soldiers escaped Vietnam. The revolution was not taking hold. The picket lines receded, the barricades disappeared as billy clubs were sheathed. Who now was the enemy? I stared out the window. The winter nights were cold.

* * *

“This will hurt.” 

Two wisdom teeth, impacted molars, pulled on a bright, cold, January day. I tapped and typed page upon page of my Wildcat story—why supported work did not work. Clyde laughed; he did not kill but knew those who did. “John, hold it man, stay with me as we dive deep into the dark alleys and walk across 116th Street to the really mean dudes. Don’t worry, I have your back, man.

“We will make it out, but Barry won’t, he’s still caught in his fast talk and the smack. That stuff is bad, it fogs the head, kills.” 

My cherry desk held the betrayals. The bleeding hand of purgatory. The addicts had to want the good life real bad; not the fix but the hard work, the broken promises, and the tears that come with the struggles to make it out. Some knew the game, most did not. I mouthed the words. Clyde knew the score.

My bleeding heart ached. Not right, not fair, not easy. I left Wildcat disappointed and angry; my friends had no choice, they stayed. I was too young to know, and they were so much older.

“Yes, take out both teeth as quick as you can.” 

The pain felt good. My cheeks puffed up as I walked into the wind. The sun was sinking; I knew things were not right. Not my teeth or my unpublished essay but the wind in my face, turning me around. I did not know what capitalism was about, why Marx believed the proletariat would rise, how do-gooder programs would and would not keep those from falling through the cracks. The chasms.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Yes, but I needed someone to tell me how to get out of here. The food I ate fed me, the clothes kept me warm, and my bed was warm with a woman I loved. The blues rang in my head; “Johnny B. Goode” was not enough.

By 1974 Nixon was gone; Ford pardoned him too quick. My Harlem buddies had less food, some methadone—a bet on a horse that did not show—and my words protesting loudly in an unpublished page. No exit there.

Yes, “the poor are always with us.” But what should we do?

“It’s going to hurt.” 

That’s okay, it’s what growing up is all about. “The times they are a-changin’”; still, we are right some of the time.

 

THE END


John Ballantine is a professor at Brandeis International Business School. He received his bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University, then earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. in economics from University of Chicago and NYU Stern, respectively. His economic commentary has appeared in Salon and The Boston Globe, among others.

Ballantine’s writing is a longstanding avocation and reflection of being in the world of his family, the equations he discusses in class, the books he’s read, and the films he watches. Every month for the last fourteen years, him and family have held “poetry potlucks” at their house. He has taken workshops through The Writers Studio and the Concord-Carlisle Community School with Barbara O’Neil, following the “Writing Down The Bones” method. His work has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Apricity Magazine, Arkansas Review, Bluestem, Carbon Culture Review, Cobalt, Crack the Spine, Existere Journal, Forge, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Lime Hawk, Massachusetts’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Nonfiction, The Penmen Review, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Ragazine, Rubbertop Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, Santa Clara Review, SNReview, Slippery Elm, and Streetlight Magazine. His essay “Half of Something” is a finalist in The Adelaide Literary Award Contest for The Best Essay 2018.