Monday, May 4, 2015
"Street smarts" calls out my admiration and approval at first blush. It has a get-real feel to it that counters a variety of squishy and socially-agreed-upon fashion trends and other assumptions: A gold-trimmed watch may be "the best," but it's still just an instrument that keeps time and it is incapable of curing either stupid or ugly.
I guess everyone has personal moments when "street smarts" kicks in after a lifetime of socially-convenient bias and one man's street smarts are another man's social convenience. There is no one-size-fits-all, street-smart observation.
In the army, I remember a moment when the street-smart dime dropped for me.
The small group of newly-joined recruits of which I was part had taken the train from Florida and wound up in South Carolina, home of Fort Jackson where we were to take our basic training. Based on nothing more than age, I had been designated the leader of the group. I hadn't a clue as to what being a leader meant, but I had signed on the bottom line and if there was one thing I did know about the army, it was that you took orders. OK ... I was the leader.
From the train station, we were bused to the base in Columbia. The bus moved slowly among the cheaply-built barracks. Outside the windows where we sat, other young men watched our progress and sometimes called out, "You'll be sorrrreeeeee!" We were not informed enough to know what, precisely, we would be sorrrrrreeeee about, but it sounded unpleasant.
Once off the bus, there were a series of group activities ... get a bunk, make your bed, be assigned a rifle, line up for shots ... I don't really remember the order, but I do remember the herd mentality that kicked in. Don't ask -- just do it. There was something supportive about others doing exactly what you were and the truth was that most of us were nervous and uncertain and grateful for whatever touchstones we could find.
Very early on, there was another line to get into -- this one for uniforms. Everyone was still in civilian clothes, with civilian haircuts. Each was recognizable: The guy in the Hawaiian shirt, the tough-looking guy in the black motorcycle jacket, the guy with the carefully-coiffed hair. I looked them over as I waited my turn to get fatigues and underwear and socks and boots. We shuffled to the counter like a group of convicts.
And it was later that day that the street-smarts epiphany dropped in my lap. Suddenly, everyone was wearing the same fatigues, the same cap, the same boots. Suddenly, everyone's hair was closely-cropped. And it was then I realized how much I depended on how people looked as a means of judging them and my relationship to them. It was a habit I had ingested growing up ... neat and clean and dressed a certain way betokened a certain kind of person. It wasn't necessarily proof-positive of who they were, but it was a strong bit of evidence.
And suddenly that evidence had been wiped out. If everyone looks the same, how the hell was I supposed to judge them? I really didn't know. But I do know that it came as a jolt. My unspoken assumption was obliterated and I was somehow lost.
"Clothes make the man" ... not!
None of this was a big deal in one sense, but I was not used to challenging my own presumptions, let alone seeing them so clearly in another light. I waffled between being somewhat proud of my new understanding and being uncertain about what I should do in its wake. Sure, I could lay down the law to myself -- never judge a book by its cover -- but that didn't mean I could divest myself overnight of not judging a book by its cover. As with all new discoveries, this took some getting used to.
And as I got used to it, there was all that judgment and bias that had accumulated from the past. It lurked and lingered and there was no escaping it. Yes, there were street smarts, but it seemed that street smarts came with a large dollop of street stupids ... I still had a lot of training in judging people by how they dressed.
And slowly a more nuanced view took hold. There were people in this world who thought their clothes (or intelligence or possessions) defined them. It was well to be wary or at least aware of it. Judging people for 'who they are' sounded good, but when those very people were convinced by their clothes and other possessions, it was no good asking them to consider another point of view. A new watch, a new car, a designer shirt, a pair of the right shoes, a community-shared religion, a college education, a trophy wife/husband... didn't recognizing that too constitute street smarts?
And a little at a time, it seemed to make more and more sense: Street smarts was any eye that viewed dealt with the situation as it unfurled. Or, put more succinctly, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.
Or something like that.
I'm still learning.