Joey was the alpha of the group when I was growing up on Crawford. He was a few years older than us, he could drive, and he had actually fingered a girl. He was an expert in all kinds of cool things, from martial arts to guns to poetry. And he was full of shit.
The first inkling I got that he was full of shit was in Theatre Tech class. I joined the class as an elective because I was into Theatre and I knew Joey was in the class. In this class we learned about lighting, sound, and the other behind the scenes aspects of Theatre. While we learned, sometimes our work would go towards the current production that the school was preparing. This included backdrops and furniture building.
Joey was working on this piece that was a small section of counter that could be used as a bar. He wasn’t working on it so much as he was standing by it. I was by no means an expert on building furniture but I had watched and helped my dad build a house and had a basic understanding of it. As I looked at this piece, it was made mostly out of plywood with almost no support. There was a group of people present. This is important to understanding Joey. He mentioned roundaboutly that this was his piece and he was proud of it, then he jumped up to sit on the counter. The plywood sagged in a way that told anyone paying attention, “this is wrong.” Someone, one of the girls he was trying to impress, voiced her concern about his unstable seating situation. His response was the first appearance of a phenomenon I would see countless times over the years. He adjusted his position, causing the boards to creak disconcertingly while declaring, “I trust my handiwork.” The dissonance between his confident demeanor and the clearly shoddy, unsafe workmanship present was palpable.
This false bravado was a recurring theme. There was something about him that claimed depth but, when probed, revealed shallowness and a superficiality that desperately needed to be taken seriously.
There were things about which he knew a great deal; he was great at martial arts despite not having formal lessons, especially after reading The Tao of Jeet-Kune-Do by Bruce Lee. He knew about soccer, gunfight tactics, art, fighting video games, literature, military training and tactics, Japanese culture, and girls. In short, he was conversant in all the topics that young men may be interested in, a real renaissance man.
It sounds like he was just the bees knees, until one considers the fact that I and the other neighborhood kids under his sway knew approximately not a goddamn thing. The counter incident described above was the first time I was absolutely sure he was talking out of his ass.
Another worrisome indication was his poetry. I had often fancied myself creative and had a great interest in poetry especially, so that was something we shared. As he enthusiastically showed me his work, including a piece that made the school’s literature review, I became jealous of his prolificness. Later, when the counter incident and other anecdotes caused us other kids to formulate hypotheses about Joey, I noticed something about his work. There was a calculated feel to it, like it was put on for people. His poetry sounded profound and mysterious on first reading. However, critical examination revealed it to be little more than word salad. Not bad for a teenager, but not “good” if by “good” you mean well formed verse that sets out to accomplish a specific objective and succeeds to some extent. If criticized, he would, almost without fail employ mirroring tactics, turning the question back to the critic without answering the charge leveled against him.
He had a plan that he was extremely proud of having. He liked to talk about his plan in front of people, another way of showing off. This particular display was all about being an Adult and having a plan for after high school, but the plan itself, in retrospect, was steeped in juvenile fantasy. His plan was as follows.
He was going to join the Army after high school, and become an Army Ranger. He adopted this plan sometime in between his junior and senior year, when the school established an Army JROTC program. I don’t know if there was a causal relationship between the JROTC program and the development of this plan, or if it was just convenient. He joined, was awarded a high rank based on being a senior, and immediately began spreading the good news of his impending importance, and challenging all those younger than him to wake up and get themselves a plan. He shaved his head along with several other newly gung-ho seniors, in a phenomenon termed “JROTC pattern baldness”. Sure, we could chide him about his hair, but he always won the day when it came to Having a Plan.
In the same vein, he was also an outspoken, unapologetic Christian, something that I, in my inexperienced and largely Catholic upbringing, had never seen. Catholics, in my thimbleful of experience, tend to downplay their faith, out of guilt, which in turn causes more guilt, then you feel guilty about feeling guilty, such is Catholicism. As a Catholic, I knew my creed wasn’t exactly the same as his, but we agreed on the Main Thing. His Christianity did not prevent him from knowing carnal things, I suspect that to be a calculated move, as chastity would hurt his credibility as a teenage boy guru. This was mostly not a big deal to him, he would mention his faith only when convenient, such as in solidarity with other Christians. Later, I noticed an increasing tolerance for sacrilege as we grew older and more irreverent.
Not All Bad
This was a guy who taught his younger friends about some very lofty values and ideals and some very useful life skills, and at times, really inspired me. He showed respect to the adults and set a great example in that regard. He tried to develop each of us in our weaknesses, to the best of his abilities. He promoted respect and honesty. He acted as a big brother figure to all of us. The thing we all started noticing, then loathing about him was the increasingly obvious double standards he used with regard to his expectations of others and what he permitted himself to get away with. This started as a splinter and developed into a wedge.
We fell out of touch by degrees, like you do, going from living together and hanging out all the time, to living together under tension, to not living together and no contact, to working together, to not working together, to emailing while I lived in Taiwan, tapering sharply to no direct contact.
He does not use social media, but his wife does, so I get updates about him through her status updates. He has a lovely family and it sounds like they are doing very well. From what I observe, they are religious and the church is a big part of their lives. I have to say, for someone who always tried to put forward an image for the public, it is surprising to find him eschewing social media. This could mean that in the intervening years, he has adopted different values than those he had in deed if not in word when he was younger.
In the end, I must look at myself with the same critical eye that we all aimed at Joey. In the years of my friendship with him, I was as full of shit, if not more so in my own way. I had serious growing up to do, and I have reasons to believe that we separately did some growing up. Even so, I currently see my social media outlets being used to crow about science, conveniently not mentioning all the time I spend watching Hell’s Kitchen or indulging in other mental junk food. I am a loud proponent of education, yet my undergrad degree remains unfinished and I have no excuse. The things, the really horrible things I did under the influence of alcohol didn’t even make the first cut of my post about alcohol. Who am I trying to impress?
In chapter 8 of his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker addresses self deception. Each side of most historical conflicts has a different story about it, one that casts themselves as a long-suffering victim and paints the opponent as the Bad Guys. In writing this memory about a friend, whom I take to task but ultimately cherish the experience of growing up around, I recognize my own double standards. It’s up to us to call our own game tighter, to be more critical of ourselves than others.
I call it the Batman Principle. In the old Batman television series, Batman is frustrated by a villain’s escape into a ladies restroom, lamenting, “He went to the one place he knew we can’t go!” Batman has to abide the rule of males not entering female restrooms even though the villain has no regard for it. This open and transparent dedication to fair play has a way of persuading others. Plus, it’s a good way to be. I’m sure Joey would approve.