“Everywhere you look it says ‘No Loitering,’” Mrs. Bowman was saying. “All up and down in front of all the stores. Right over there beside the bench. And the signs say you can go to jail for loitering. You’d think they’d want people hanging out in front of their stores so they could sell them things. Why do you suppose people put up so many ‘No Loitering’ signs?”
Mr. Magundi answered, “I think it’s because the Supreme Court has told them they can’t put up signs that say ‘No Colored People.'”
“So the children were taken away,” Mrs. Bowman concluded. “But the best part was that the woman worked at a day-care center.”
“Yes, I read that story,” Mr. Magundi said. “And it may be that the mother and the father are awful people. But I’m not sure about that. The fact remains that something is broken, and we don’t know how to fix it. Why was this woman going away to work and leaving her children home alone? Obviously because she needed the money, or they would all starve to death. It was the only way she could fulfill her duty as a mother to take care of them. Why she couldn’t take her children with her to a day-care center I don’t know, but no one who has ever had a low-paying dead-end job will be surprised to hear that it’s also inflexible. She could quit and go on welfare, but we’d take welfare away from her if she didn’t find another low-paying dead-end job. So what else could she do? She tried to arrange with the children’s father to take care of them, but the father is unreliable, and she knew it, and provided the children with everything she could to keep them safe, including a 911-only cell phone. The children used it and saved themselves.
“So who’s to blame here? Is it an inflexible legal system that punishes people for not going out to work, and punishes them for leaving their children alone when they do find work? Is it a broken social order that assumes marriages are disposable, and encourages parents—especially fathers—to put their own ‘fulfillment’ above their children’s needs? Is it a selfish father who doesn’t care about his own children? Is it a stupid woman who trusted a worthless layabout and is still paying the price? I don’t know, and I wouldn’t know even if I were intimately acquainted with this whole family. The only thing I know for certain is that the children will not be better off in the care of the state.”
“He wants me to get a tattoo like his,” Brielle was saying, “but I’m just not, like, totally sure about it.”
“Then you should stick to your guns,” Mr. Magundi said. “Remember that a tattoo is permanent. It will still be with you in twenty years. Would you really want to be wearing 1991 fashions right now?
“But aside from any aesthetic considerations, I think tattoos have a strong tendency to stunt your intellectual development. What I mean is this: I don’t think much of someone who has the same tastes and opinions at fifty that she had at twenty. If you aren’t constantly refining and improving your own mind, how is your life worth living? But a tattoo is an indelible record of what you thought was beautiful and important at one moment in time. You’re stuck with it unless you take drastic measures. It’s more irrevocable than just about any other decision you can make—far more irrevocable in our society than a marriage, for example. And I know human psychology. You’re very likely to persuade yourself that a decision you can never revoke was a good and right decision. And so your taste and opinions will stagnate, at least as far as they’re represented by the tattoo, because you cannot allow them to change.”
“They’ve done all their research,” I said, “and they’ve kept only the features people said they liked best. But somehow there’s nothing to read in there.”
“We’re a marketing-driven culture,” Mr. Magundi said. “The marketers who decide what goes into popular newspapers and magazines want certainty. They want to know they can sell their product. So they very scientifically track and survey their readers to find out which things they like best, and then give them only those things. They keep refining, throwing more and more of the less popular stuff out and adding more and more of the things that get high marks in surveys. They listen to the people, and they give the people only what the people say they want.
“But the problem is that magazines and newspapers help form popular culture. If the things that are forming popular culture will only respond to popular culture, what do we have?
“Now, you know what happens when you get a microphone too close to the loudspeaker. The signal from the microphone comes out the loudspeaker and goes into the microphone and comes out the loudspeaker and goes into the microphone, and round and round, until you get a feedback loop, which is just a high-pitched squeal that makes you want to cover your ears. And that’s why you can’t find anything to read anymore. You can go to a newsstand and see millions of words, but all they add up to is a high-pitched squeal, because the whole publishing industry is caught in a gigantic feedback loop.”
“And then he passed out,” Brielle concluded. “I swear, he does the dumbest things sometimes.”
“A friend of mine once told me,” Mr Magundi said, “that the male half of our species is really made up of two sexes. She called them ‘men’ and ‘guys.’ The difference, she said, was in the permanence of their masculinity. A man’s masculinity is simply a genetic fact; he never has to think or worry about it. But a guy’s masculinity is conditional. The most insignificant things can cause him to lose it, and then he can win it back only by doing something extraordinarily stupid or destructive. A guy can lose his masculinity if he drives a station wagon, or if he lets a school bus pass him on the highway; he can lose it if he is forced to sing in public, or—like your boyfriend—if he refuses another drink when the rest of the guys are still drinking. Most vandals are guys who need to prove that they still have their masculinity; for the same reason, the overwhelming majority of violent criminals are male. Most of the wars in the world can be explained as groups of guys desperately trying to preserve their masculinity. Women and men build up civilization, but guys tear down civilization, because they can lose their masculinity by being too civilized. I don’t normally give personal advice, Brielle, but I’d seriously suggest that, when the time comes, you should marry a man and not a guy.”
“Where do you work, Mr. Magundi?” Brielle asked.
“Work?” Mr. Magundi replied with an expression of blank horror.
“But I guess I’m getting too old for them to be interested in my opinion,” Mrs. Bowman concluded.
“A child born in this country has a reasonable chance of living to be eighty years old,” said Mr. Magundi. “He will spend the first twenty-one of those years being too young—too young to live independently, too young to drink alcohol, too young to make decisions for himself. At twenty-one he becomes a full adult, with all the privileges thereunto appertaining. At twenty-nine he realizes that he is almost thirty, and begins morbid reflections on his own mortality; and when he turns thirty his friends give him a party with black candles on the cake and a big “Over the Hill” banner on the wall, and after that he is too old. So of his eighty years on this earth, he will spend exactly eight, or ten per cent, being the right age. The other ninety per cent of his life is spent being the wrong age. I could write any number of elaborate satires on the mores of our twenty-first century, and yet none of them would be as biting or as ridiculous as the simple statement I’ve just made to you, which your own experience will confirm is absolutely true.”