I have lost touch with my friend Mark, and, assuming he is alive, it will be some work to track him down, because he is periodically homeless or semi-homeless. My first impression was that his economic condition was mainly the result of his having been for many years a pretty good addict and a pretty poor motorcyclist, a combination that had predictable neurological consequences.
I never knew Mark "before" — there is something in such men as Mark suggesting an irrevocably bifurcated life — but the better I got to know him, the more I came to believe that he probably had been much the same man, but functional, or at least functional enough.
Like many people with mental problems, Mark tended to be repetitious. His rants were as well-rehearsed as any stand-up comedy routine. "My dear, sweet mother said I was a rebel, a troublemaker, and a hoodlum," he would say. "But she was wrong. I ain't no hoodlum!"
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Mark's conception of himself as a rebel was central to his outlook on life, and it was reinforced by the amusing decision of the local social-services agency to put him into a subsidized apartment in a narrow strip of commercial and retail properties abutting two of the wealthiest communities in one of the wealthiest municipalities in the United States. He reveled in the fact that his mere presence on the street was sufficient to épater le bourgeois.
Part of it was an act, but not all of it. If you saw him on the street and called his name, he'd spin around on you, fists balled up, half enraged and half afraid, ready to fight, until he recognized you, which could sometimes take a few seconds longer than it should have.
But then he was all smiles and wry commentary on the passers-by and the police. He'd gesture at passing police cars (he lived about two blocks from the police station) and say, "They all know me," which was true. We talked about motorcycles and his longing to ride again, and he'd explain to me all the reasons why that was never, ever going to happen. "They'd lock me up," he'd say darkly, which also was true. He'd sometimes ask to borrow mine, and I'd explain to him all the reasons why that was never, ever going to happen. "You're a maniac." This was an approved line of argument. "That's right!" he'd thunder. Maniac was fine, but he objected to lunatic. He didn't like bum very much, either, but he was a realist.
Mark was in his fifties at the time, and was still angry at his parents, his teachers, his family, society, and others he thought had failed him. He curated his resentments with the care of a sixth-century monastic archivist. I was in my thirties at the time and resolved to stop doing that.
(I am still working on it.)
The inability to move on from adolescent resentments is a strangely prominent condition among American men, as indeed is the inability to move on from adolescence in general. That is one of the unhappy consequences of the low-stakes character of American middle-class life, by which I mean the fact that the difference between being in the 50th percentile and being in the 55th percentile of whatever index of socioeconomic status you think most relevant is not that consequential in terms of one's real standard of living.
The price of being a little bit of a slacker is not very high in the United States, though the rewards for success can be staggering. Life is pretty comfortable, and you can take six years to finish your bachelor's degree in art history while working at Starbucks, and it isn't miserable.