The Montagues and the Capulets

Clearly, urban people have been having feuds and “gang problems” since at least the time of Shakespeare.  Or, at least, Shakespeare thought his audience would find it believable that Italians would have violent street battles and terrible, terrifying rivalries among Houses.

As it turns out, I’m a Montague.  I’ve figured out who several of my ancestors were during Shakespeare’s day. They were Montagues, Kingsmills, Malthouses, Tyndales, Taylors, Thurstons, Stubbs and others.  The Montagues were the ones with the best connections – just a few generations away from being nobility.  The name isn’t Italian, but it must have sounded exotic to Shakespeare.  The moral of Shakespeare’s play seems to be that such enmity is the source of great personal tragedy.  The families forgive each other only after the two beautiful young people die.  That’s probably what it takes to settle a feud of that kind.

Today’s gangs are not exactly families or Houses in the same sense, and their feuds don’t die when beautiful young people die.

Elena, the woman whose family member stole from her (see May 13th: Mayan Changes), would like to have a feud with that woman. She’d like, at least, to beat her up (so would I, but I’m not good at beating people up).  The desire to have revenge when we are wronged is strong, especially if the wrong is criminal and especially when civilization has declined to the point where our little petty wrongs have to be huge in order to be investigated.

In Elena’s case, there is now a family feud brewing.  Details have to be worked out.  Family gatherings still have to take place, but are now a breeding ground for further angry action.  One side has already armed itself and shown its gun to the other side.  The other side is thinking of getting a gun.  The family is divided, the actions of one person accomplished this.   We are lucky, our Bad Neighbors are merely that.  They are not family.  Our House remains undivided.

In Romeo and Juliet, the main antagonists are young.  In the situations I’m describing, the players are getting a bit old for such nonsense .  The older Montagues urged some degree of decorum, although they certainly did not see their way clear to resolving the enmity between the Houses.

In my own neighborhood theft case, the main culprit is the oldest man on the block and his family (even older).   Is this new?   He’s not a Baby Boomer – but his wife is.  Is this what we have to look forward to?  Elderly criminals?

Crime is almost always depicted as being mainly the purview of the young.  I know now that this Old White Man has been shady for a long time.  Probably since fourth grade or something.  Perhaps his Stealthy Wife turned him on to a more active life of crime.  He seems never to have had a real job, but boy does he have The Lifestyle.  Her own malfeasance at her job (public sector) has made the newspapers, and just this week, the court ruled against her side.  Discovery will proceed.  We’ll see if she accepted bribes or not.  She’s going to have to go to court.

Meanwhile, they’ve fled the state.  Several people who know the whole story thought that was their intent all along (they bought a $100,000 RV after she retired from her $60,000 a year job).  Even one of the policemen said it would be interesting to see if they’d flee when the court ruling was about to come down.

All of this has made me think about how we recognize our enemies.  If I am a Montague, then the Capulets are my sworn enemies.  This clearcut notion of family alliances makes life easier to understand.  You’re for me or against me.

The way I was brought up, everyone in your neighborhood was categorized as Friend.  Few people violated that trust.  Neighbors looked out for each other.  To some extent, territorial youth gangs still follow this dynamic of trying to trust their own peeps, while hating the next hood over.  Some boys down the street stole my brand new scooter the day after Christmas when I was 6, but other than that, the neighbors I knew growing up were either honest, committed purely domestic crimes – or crimes against strangers.  There were certainly Con Men in that small town I grew up in, and my parents warned me about them, but they lived in apartments after getting kicked out of their family homes  – or were in jail.

And Elena couldn’t have used any quick and nifty division of people into friends and enemies, because her enemy turned up inside her own family.  This seems to happen a lot.  Well, if not a lot – certainly more than I would have thought.  If you’ve ever been a Total Farker ( ), you’ve heard the stories.

I think it’s nothing new, but that we should be warned about it a bit more.  Maybe warned isn’t the right word:  taught about how it happens and who is likely to do it.  Actually – I just think we should be less afraid to talk about it.  It’s not easy to admit what’s going on.

Because, we certainly don’t want to go around suspecting everyone of criminality.  The world I want to live in is trusting and happy.  Since these problems are not actually new, I’ve learned some solutions from my recent historical studies, I’ll be sharing them in upcoming days.

Right now, more about our current feud.

The Old White Man, whom I’ll call Mr. Klaus, is both an actual neighbor and an archetype.  He isn’t just any Old White Man, he’s adopted the demeanor, hairstyle and beard, clothing and implements, of the Aging Well-but-not-Super Classy Old White Man.  I’m sure you’ve seen this guy, he’s on commercials.  They choose this type to appeal to a certain demographic.  This demographic is socially above redneck, but certainly not urbane.  It’s your “next door neighbor archetype”:  sure, everyone knows he drinks a bit, but he’s friendly in a loud, ho-ho-ho kind of way, and he has a white beard.

His voice is not strongly masculine, nothing about him is strongly masculine, even his beard.  He’s gone completely snow white, like Santa Claus.  His beard is not as big as Santa Claus’s, that would be gauche, from his own point of view.  It’s neatly trimmed, like some of those guys you see on TV. There’s a PBS travel program announcer who looks exactly like our neighbor.  There are, in fact, hundreds of people in SoCal who look exactly like our neighbor.  No matter how hard I try, I can’t look much like anyone else – much less, exactly like anyone.  None of my friends looks like a SoCal archetype, either – but if you drive through L.A., you see them all the time.  Oh – there’s a Kim Kardashian wannabe.   Oh – that guy thinks he’s Keith Urban.  Years ago, everyone tried to be Harrison Ford.  Now, there are a lot of Jesse James imitators (or maybe Jesse is imitating the average white man of Southern California, hard to say).

Protective coloration, the police told me (when I was teaching at the police academy, which I did for several years – learned a lot), is often adopted by criminals.  People with giant purple mohawks, they said, almost never receive police attention when a crime has occurred.  If the criminal had a mohawk, someone would have noticed – hard to disguise it.  People with tattoos in places that are always visible don’t commit crimes where they have to be invisible (unless they are stupid).  People actually try to look a lot like everyone else, before they commit their crimes.  We’ve had all manner of bank robberies in town and the bandits have 21st century names.  No “Pretty Boy Floyds,” nope, they’re the “grandpa bandit” or the “dodger cap bandit” or the “sports watch bandit,” because their identiying features are…normal.  These people aren’t stupid, they’re pretty smart, as thieves go.

So Mr. Klaus has adopted an entire persona of Hail Fellow, Well Met, the oversized t-shirts of today’s youth and middle-aged men (but hardly any Very Old Men wear them – so he manages to look 10 years younger than his fourscore and fifteen).  He has the submissive white guy voice down to a T.

Elena’s family member committed her crimes mostly at family gatherings – or maybe entirely at family gatherings.  Mr Klaus and Stealthy Wife (The Ninja) have the same pattern, except their family isn’t speaking to them , so they try to have a “social life.”   Elena’s family member also has a track record of her own family members avoiding her.   So, I now have a clue:  When your own kids won’t speak to you, that’s a big red flag – especially if it’s all of the kids.

Being completely happy without going to parties or gatherings, myself, I’ve always wondered why the neighbors like to entertain so much (or used to – I think maybe they’ve run out of friends to prey upon). Elena’s family member likes to socialize too (of course she does, she’s always looking for an opportunity to go through someone’s purse).  The same thing (stealing from purses) happened at party where Mr. Klaus and The Ninja were hosting.

But was this type of behavior going on in the Renaissance?  We all know that if a Capulet showed up at a Montague party, one could expect trouble.  They’d have to disguise themselves, of course.  But if the party was truly all-Montagues, did they steal from each other?   I’ll bet they did – some of them.  I’m basing this bet on some things I learned from history, and you’ll just have to stay in suspense until I get around to writing about why I think it’s not so different now.  Did the Montagues mistakenly blame Capulets when it happened?  Probably.  If the real thief was known, did they get punished – I’m certain of it.  Indeed, one of my ancestors had an eye gouged out with a hot stiletto by his brother, after a terrible misunderstanding in which younger brother was accused of trying to take land belonging to the older one.   This was way before the Renaissance though – that was medieval.

I was led to believe there had been progress since medieval times- it was drilled into me, in my youth, even at university (although frankly, there were some brilliant professors at Stanford who taught that progress might be a myth, gave us a lot of new ways of thinking about history).  Surely some things have changed since the Middle Ages.  Surely, the Renaissance was kinder and nicer, and then the Enlightenment came along and things were still better – right?

That’s my mission – to solve the mystery of what has and hasn’t changed, as well as answer the question how the hell I ended up remaining so naive at my age.  I can learn, though, right?

One of the most brilliant of my professors, Renato Rosaldo, said:  “You can always study deviance; people think studying ‘normal’ makes for good anthropology, but when you study deviance, you uncover a whole lot about the culture and its ethos that you’d never see if you tried to see it directly.” Or something like that, I’m paraphrasing.  Anyway, he was right.  He also pioneered an anthropology where we don’t refuse to see what’s right in front of us.  I’m trying to learn.

At any rate, my work with the police, my fieldwork at mental hospitals and jails, and now, my experience in my own neighborhood has given me data on deviance.  But, it seems to me, feuds aren’t deviant at all.  It’s very human.  We certainly should not pretend that we’d all like to buy the world a Coke or ask whether we can all get along.  We can’t.  Some people are just plain mean and nasty – and they are opportunistic as well.

Note to self:  Deal with it (and try not to resort to human sacrifice or stilettos).


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