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Sunday, October 3, 2010
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As I get older, I give conservatives (the true conservatives, anyway) credit for putting emphasis on the notion of “values” and “virtues”. They have a point; no matter how good and effective the government is, no matter how extensive its social programs are, no matter how just and effectively enforced the laws are, a nation and the society within it will not hold together unless there are unwritten personal rules which everyone respects and plays by. That’s what values are all about; they are based around certain simple notions, such as the “Golden Rule”, and reflect many hundreds and thousands of years of accumulated wisdom passed on from generation to generation.

The conservatives complain that values aren’t holding up so well in present day America; we are trying to replace value-driven self-regulation with more and more programs and written regulations, and that is causing thing to go to hell. Well, I don’t entirely agree; but it is something to ponder.

In my pondering, I tried to think of some people from my youth (in the early 1960s, when values hadn’t yet declined too much yet according to some conservative thinkers) who truly lived “value-oriented” lives. People who could be called “the salt of the earth”. People who no one much noticed, but quietly did many tiny little things that collectively help keep life civilized. Yes, like the raindrops that collectively assemble themselves into rivers and oceans. I can think of many people from my family who were like that. But my memories of my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives is probably clouded by sentimentality, given how long they have been gone. So I have picked out a guy who was not a member of my family, but still impressed me and many others that I grew up with as a really good person.

That guy’s name was Rocco Locarro, Rocky as everyone called him (I have discussed him before on this blog). He was the janitor at McKenzie Elementary School in Carlton Hill (East Rutherford, NJ). Rocky was a short fellow of slight build, but he was healthy enough to keep the floors mopped and the wastebaskets clean. He was there whenever a kid puked or a toilet overflowed because someone stuffed it with towels. He didn’t take any crap from the kids; when someone tried to give him trouble, he immediately gave it back. He would yell, and if pushed enough, he might even hit someone; that’s how kids were dealt with back then. (To clarify, the hitting that adults did to kids where I came from was to humiliate them, not to injure them). When kids were acting stupid (which I did on various occasions), he called them out and warned them to stop it. If they didn’t (and usually they did), he could get tough.

But actually, I rarely remember Rocky having to do that. Because he also liked the kids. He would talk to kids without a lot of pretensions or attitudes. He was a parent himself, and he treated all of the 300 or so kids in my grammar school pretty much like they were his own kids. At bottom, he liked all the kids and wanted them to do well. Rocky was like everyone’s best uncle. He didn’t get angry quickly, or bitch and moan about things. During an Easter vacation break, I once had to go over to the school to get something, maybe it was a coat, that I left at my desk. So I banged on the door of the closed school one morning, and Rocky came by and took me up to the classroom, where I found what I needed. No drama; he was nice about the whole thing.

Rocky was a man of unspoken values and unapparent virtue. If you asked him what his values were, he probably could not have told you, not in any great detail anyway. He wasn’t a philosopher or a social theorist. He probably went to church, probably had some regard for the notion of sin and eternal punishment. But at bottom, he was moral by osmosis. He reflected some mix of genetics and social circumstances and life experiences that came together to form a truly good man. His goodness rubbed off on others, including the many kids that passed through the school through the course of his career. With enough adults like him around (and there were other good guys around), most kids could grow up to be positive, moral people themselves. I can’t think of anyone from my class who turned out to be a criminal or a depressed suicidal maniac or a sociopath (or an options broker on Wall Street; also pretty bad). We mostly turned out pretty average, but generally responsible citizens. Something of Rocky had soaked into many of us.

OK, I’m not saying that Rocky turned us into saints. I’m sure if I did a closer study of the kids who went thru McKenzie School who remember Rocky, I could find some bad apples. But to be honest, it is hard today to find solid, simple people of value. We are all so complex these days. We have intelligent idiots like Glenn Beck held up as the poster children for conservative ideals. What we really need to seek are people like Rocky Locarro. If the Tea Party could guarantee us a handful of Rocky Locarros in every school, then I might agree with them that government regulations and involvement in our lives (and the taxes needed to fuel such involvement) could be cut back. But alas, they cannot.

Our nation and our society does need to try to get back to some of the simple and basic ways of people like Rocky Locarro. There isn’t any pill or psychological technique to turn out folk like that. The Baby Boom generation seemed to have lost the unwritten social formula for it, the unwritten notions of living that made “the Greatest Generation” pretty great after all (although yes, they had their problems with racism and homophobia). Let’s hope that succeeding generations eventually come across it again. Otherwise – it’s going to keep on getting uglier and uglier (despite all our enlightenment regarding racial and sexual equality).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:45 pm      

  1. Jim, I agree with you that there are a lot of people around who live ordinary lives and who are really good people. Many people like that are around.

    But I do not think I can 100% agree with you that such people were not/are not complex. I think that everyone is complex–whether they are the “good guys” or not. The “good guys” probably have a lot of what may be the not-so-good in them, just as the “bad guys” always seem to have some “good” in them. Even the worst criminal seems to always have someone who says, “he was a wonderful guy–at least to me.”

    As to the people of the Tea Party you mention and the Glen Becks of this world, I think you need to separate the two, although they may seem connected.

    The people of the Tea Party are likely people longing for the “good old days”. And then again, perhaps some of them are really just good peole. I once saw a program on C-Span 2 or some one of those channels. It was a group of women (I didn’t know immediately which group) who were deeply and sincerely concerned about the poor of this world. One woman gave a very touching and moving speech urging the members of her group to take some immediate and real action to help a particular group of people she had visited or seen. I was interested in exactly who this group was because I was ready myself to “join up” and help; she made her case so effectively. To my surprise, at the end I found she was part of a particular political group I never would have wanted to be caught dead near. And I thought: Well, there you have it. Good people wherever you go. So the people of the Tea Party may have at bottom a wish to return to the “simpler life” of the “olden days”–not a bad desire in itself, just perhaps unrealistic.

    As to the Glenn Becks of this world, I think you are dealing with the phenomenon of “immediate communication” that we have nowadays with non-stop news and the internet. It seems sometimes that the world has become like the small town of old–where everybody knew everybody else’s business and didn’t hesitate to comment on it and say what they thought about everybody else’s business.

    There is also the phenomenon of what seems to me to be “public confession” that also pervades the communications networks of today. Sometimes I think it’s a throwback to the Middle Ages; when someone “sinned”, they had to confess publically, receive a public penance, perform that penance, and only then were accepted back into society. We see that same approach all over the place with celebrities whose private-life mistakes become public.

    I think that what will need to be developed are the “rules” of the very public communication we have nowadays. I don’t think people are yet really aware of how this endless 24/7 communication and the tendency to make the private public will affect the society of the near future. People seem to be living this new kind of public life but not really analyzing what it is they are doing. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 3, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

  2. This Rocky fellow, did he work in Florence Ave. Elementary school in Irvington, NJ? In the mid-late 90’s?

    [Actually no, the Rocky I knew was in East Rutherford back in the 60’s and 70’s. But glad to know that there were other good guys out there like him!]

    Comment by Laila Q. — March 4, 2013 @ 7:32 am

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